Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

Finding the Exit

No doubt many of the party faithful showed up not to praise but rather to once and for all bury Bill Simon Jr., whose campaign many Republicans across the country saw as the worst of the electoral cycle.

Indeed, early on in the evening at the GOP party at the featureless LAX Westin Hotel, state party chair Shawn Steel whispered to me, clearly joking on the square, “I’ll settle for Sununu winning the Senate race in New Hampshire.”

And Dick Riordan seemed like he didn’t want to be caught dead at what all except the brain-dead True Believers guessed would be the impending disaster. He showed up early, schmoozed and cruised for a few minutes, just long enough to suggest a sort of I-Told-You-So gloat, and then hastily decamped.

So certain was the Simon defeat, the GOP apparatchiks didn’t even spring for balloons, festoons, bunting or streamers. Just a barnlike ballroom with a bare stage in front of a huge California flag. Not even any soggy celery or wilting carrots to munch on. And barely one cash bar offering six-dollar shots of booze. Your midrange Republican Palos Verdes cotillion has a bigger budget than this affair.

And yet . . . far from the anticipated funeral, the several hundred Republicans cloistered at the Westin had a pretty darn good party. First came the returns from the East Coast and with them the faint but unmistakable suggestion of a nationwide Republican victory. Well, not really a suggestion. More like the roar of a tsunami.

As the GOP-favorable returns washed in from Florida, Minnesota and Maryland, spirits were buoyed ever higher. But there were really two classes of Republicans present — the insane and the sane — and each responded to the returns in its own way.

The former group consisted primarily of South Bay real estate ladies and Bakersfield insurance brokers who were crazy enough in the first place to run as legislative or congressional candidates against Democrats occupying gerrymandered and totally invulnerable seats. Running kitchen-table campaigns, these folks actually thought they might win. And as the Eastern states’ results rolled in, they suddenly became convinced that not only would Simon now win, but so would they. “If Davis wins tonight, it will be only because of fraud,” proclaimed Margherita Underhill, whose business card reads “Pro-Life Attorney” and who told me she was running in the 55th Assembly District “for God and country.”

The saner folks were just quietly delirious that Simon wasn’t getting the snot beat out of him. For the first few hours of the evening, Simon was even leading in the tally, but the more informed Republican operatives had been leaked reports of the L.A. Times exit polls and knew that at the end of the evening Davis would probably win by four or five points. But that was good news for those who devise Republican strategy. It meant that Davis did better in 1998, after 16 years of Republican rule, than he would do this time around, after his “leading” the state for four years.

“Why is it you can get together a group of liberals and conservatives and within minutes have them all laughing together and agreeing?” asked a gleeful Allen Hoffenblum, a local moderate Republican consultant. “The answer is Gray Davis. The man everyone loves to hate. Even Democrats.”

Well, Allen certainly has a point there. And that’s why trying to make sense of the California election was so difficult. Even a friend who used to be an adviser to former Governor Wilson wouldn’t venture much of a guess as he peered into his glass of Johnnie Black. “I dunno what it means,” he said, taking a gulp. “I guess if people didn’t despise Gray Davis so much, more Democrats would have come out to vote and we would have gotten really creamed tonight. Then again, if we had a candidate that actually had a brain, maybe we would have won.”

There were also Republicans present who thought the election result was actually the perfect outcome for them. They didn’t want Simon routed. But they didn’t want him to win either. They feared that such a bumbler alone in the governor’s chair, confronted by a solidly Democratic Legislature, would only stymie and tarnish their own party. State Republicans would be best positioned for the immediate future, they argued, by letting an unpopular Davis make himself and the Legislature even more unpopular over the next four years as they try to balance billions of dollars in budget deficits — opening the way for, say, Arnold in 2006.

Round midnight, Bill Simon Jr. and wife Cindy took the stage and — as is often the case — the candidate’s concession speech was the best of his campaign. In Simon’s case because it only lasted about three minutes and he didn’t even attempt to say anything beyond a number of heartfelt and gracious thank-yous.

As Simon departed, party chairman Steel took the mike and — not very convincingly — vowed, “We’ll be hearing from Bill Simon again soon.” I don’t think so.


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