Gray in His Groove 

Primary matters: The false spring of the Republican right, the real spring of the Democratic left

Wednesday, Mar 13 2002

I. Cloudless Gray Skies

I always thought that if Gray Davis put his mind to it, he could win a Republican primary.

Let‘s be clear: Last week’s primary outcome was far more a victory for Gray than it was for Lucky Bill Simon. Gray‘s $10 million campaign to take down Dick Riordan was much the most important factor in Simon’s victory. Riordan‘s strategic and personal ineptitude ranked second, with Simon’s own steady appeal to the Republican base coming in a distant third. That‘s not to say Simon is an inept campaigner -- far from it. Since election night, he’s been right on message -- talking incessantly about the sad state of public schools, uttering not a syllable about his anti-choice and pro-gun positions. If Simon is to have even a ghost of a chance, that‘s the campaign he has to run.

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But we’ve seen just such a GOP campaign only a few months ago, with results that should not be heartening to the Simonistas. In last November‘s off-year gubernatorial election in New Jersey, the Republican nominee, Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, tripped down the same path that Simon is treading now. Like Simon -- who’s under the calamitous spell of various right-wing think tanks -- Schundler was a movement conservative in a state that‘s pro-choice, pro--environmental protections, against school vouchers. Schundler had little choice but to run on state fiscal issues, clam up about his true beliefs, and hope that his Democratic opponent, Jim McGreevy, wouldn’t make too much of them. This plan worked perfectly, except for the last part: McGreevy clobbered Schundler over his right-wing beliefs, and won the statehouse by a cool 14 percentage points.

Are Simon‘s prospects as grim as Schundler’s? In all probability, they‘re worse. California is a more Democratic and liberal state than New Jersey, particularly when it comes to those social issues on which Simon, like Schundler, is so vulnerable. Among both Democrats and independents in California, support for choice hovers at about the 80th percentile. Indeed, according to a survey from the Public Policy Institute of California, the ideological profile of California’s independents is a lot closer to that of the state‘s Democrats than to its GOP-niks. Forty percent of independents, for instance, describe themselves as liberal, compared to 48 percent of Democrats and just 8 percent of Republicans. Five percent of independents call themselves “very conservative” -- compared with three percent of the Dems and 22 percent of the Reeps. In California elections, the center, as ever, is vital -- but that doesn’t mean it‘s in play when the Republican nominee is someone like Bill Simon. Dick Riordan might have been another story, but Gray Davis has ensured that that story won’t be told.

Simon‘s one advantage over Schundler, of course, is his opponent. Californians know Gray Davis, which is to say, they don’t like him. The most embittered constituency is probably the hardcore Democratic base, which understands that as the state has moved Democratic and leftward, Davis has stood athwart numerous progressive initiatives, both as a matter of political calculation and in deference to the wishes of his corporate and industry-group donors. But confronted with yet another GOP nominee in the Dan Lungren mold, hardcore Dems have little option but to tape their nostrils and vote for Gray.

Since the primary, Davis has been subjected to some predictable Monday-morning quarterbacking. In particular, his campaign to select the less electable Republican as his opponent has been compared to Pat Brown‘s vastly more modest effort -- little more than an expressed preference, really -- to tilt the 1966 Republican primary to a right-wing actor with no electoral experience. That actor -- Ronald Reagan -- then went on to defeat Brown, who was seeking a third term as governor, that November.

But the California of 2002 is light-years from the white-backlash state of 1966, and Gray Davis -- alas and woe -- is no Pat Brown. Old Pat -- who built the University of California and Cal State systems, the freeways, the aqueducts, and signed pioneering civil rights legislation into law -- was surely California’s greatest governor, but he was a sadly inept pol. Gray Davis is quite the reverse: a second-rate governor but a first-rate political tactician. His campaign in the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial primary -- holding his funds in reserve while Al Checchi and Jane Harman destroyed each other, then going up on the air in the last month to move from third in the polls to first by primary day -- was a brilliant precursor of his Republican-primary foray this spring. There‘s little doubt that his pending ad campaign will define Simon to California voters in devastating ways.

More to the point, 1966 was a terrific Republican year, and nowhere more so than in California. The Watts Riots had shaken the state just one year earlier, and the demonstrations at UC Berkeley had also appalled many thousands of longtime Democratic voters. The New Deal coalition crumbled in the ’66 California election, as white working-class and middle-class voters rejected Brown to become the nation‘s first Reagan Democrats.

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