For Bush, California Recall Is No Bonanza

Posted August 12, 2003 at 10:15am

While some political observers continue the never-ending search for national fallout from state elections, there is little or no evidence that the California recall will have any impact on the 2004 presidential contest. [IMGCAP(1)]

Putting it another way, if Gov. Gray Davis (D) is recalled by Golden State voters on Oct. 7 and either Republicans Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bill Simon is elected governor, it will not boost George W. Bush’s prospects of carrying California next year.

You don’t have to believe me. All you have to do is look at history.

Republican Tom Ridge won the Pennsylvania governorship in 1994, but two years later state voters picked Democrat Bill Clinton over Republican Bob Dole in the presidential race. Two years after that, Ridge won a second term as governor, defeating his Democratic opponent by more than 26 points. But that didn’t help Bush in the state two years later. He lost Pennsylvania by 4 points to Democrat Al Gore.

Each election cycle has its own flavor, and gubernatorial contests tend to be fought on themes that have little or nothing to do with federal races and presidential politics.

Does anybody really believe that last year’s gubernatorial victories by Democrats Kathleen Sebelius in Kansas or Dave Freudenthal in Wyoming presage a Democratic victory in either of those states in the 2004 presidential race? I hope not.

Is it reasonable to believe that Democratic governors in those two states would enhance the chances of Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) or former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean carrying Kansas and Wyoming next year? Apparently not, since then-Gov. John Engler (R) didn’t deliver Michigan to Bush and a series of GOP governors in Massachusetts has not even made the state competitive in presidential elections.

Gubernatorial elections are usually referenda on state economies and the performance of incumbents, and they don’t ordinarily say much beyond that. (Georgia in 2002 probably was an exception to this rule.) A Republican victory in California in October would be a fluke, the result of an unpopular Democratic governor, a crowded field and a short campaign.

Of course, a Republican governor in Sacramento could improve his party’s standing in the state if he is successful turning the state’s economy around, handling its energy challenges, dealing with state education issues and rehabilitating the GOP’s image among immigrants.

But that’s a lot of “ifs,” and even if they come to pass, they aren’t likely to happen within a year. Indeed, the nature of the challenges facing the state means that a newly elected Republican governor (facing a Democratic-controlled Legislature) is just as likely to meet failure as success.

The suggestion that a GOP win in the recall could benefit Bush is especially interesting since national Republican strategists initially weren’t enthusiastic about supporting the recall. In fact, they were quite happy to see Gray Davis in Sacramento.

Savvy Republicans always believed that it was better for Bush to have a damaged Davis sitting in the governor’s mansion than a newly elected Republican. A weakened Davis, wholly responsible for the mess in the state, gave Bush, the eventual GOP nominee against Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) and all Republican nominees in California an unsympathetic statewide figure against whom to run.

But now that the recall has made it to the ballot and candidates are lining up to replace Davis, the White House and national Republican strategists have no alternative but to hope it succeeds. The balloting assures that there will be a winner and a loser, and losing is never a preferred alternative for political parties, candidates and political strategists.

So where does the California recall stand? It’s a circus with a cast of characters more appropriate for a Letterman bit than a serious political campaign. Arianna Huffington, the Zsa Zsa Gabor of high-society populism, former child actor Gary Coleman and porn purveyor Larry Flynt are all about equally prepared for and equally worthy of high office.

Schwarzenegger, a political neophyte who has no background in government, no experience in serious government service and no demonstrated management or executive ability, suddenly is the GOP’s savior. Businessman Simon, who is undeterred by his ineptness in his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, is trying to run as the conservative alternative.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (D), never regarded as an intellectual heavyweight, is the Democratic Party’s hope of holding the state’s top office. And Davis, who brought his troubles on himself by caring less about being admired than about being elected, is an underdog in his fight to hold onto his office.


Rothenberg Political Report