California Aftershocks

Do Incumbents Everywhere Need to Worry? Does Barbara Boxer?

Posted October 10, 2003 at 5:06pm

“I don’t want realism, I want magic”
— Blanche DuBois
“A Streetcar Named Desire”

Like Tennessee Williams’ Southern belle, California voters opted for magic over realism last week when they kicked Gov. Gray Davis (D) out of Sacramento and replaced him with “The Terminator,” Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

If they didn’t know exactly what Schwarzenegger planned to do to solve the state’s myriad problems, they at least bought into the image of leadership he projected in his box office hits.

In the days that followed, pundits mused over whether the voter sentiment that drove Davis out of office could carry into the 2004 elections. And campaign professionals began to anticipate a radically altered political terrain in the Golden State.

“Things are going to be different [in California], and they’re going to be better,” said Rep. Doug Ose (R-Calif.), an early House supporter of Schwarzenegger’s.

While jarred by the loss of the governorship in the largest state in the union, national Democrats are hoping that California proves to be a political trendsetter, as it frequently has been in the past.

“This means very bad things for House Republicans and George Bush,” said Kori Bernards, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It’s clear to me that people are very unhappy with the way things are going in the country, and they want accountability.”

But Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Republicans do not see the Davis recall as a threat to their decade-long control of the House.

“You always watch,” he said. “But I look at it at this point as unique to California.”

Besides, Reynolds said, by voting in Schwarzenegger, California voters rejected “the leftish policies of Gray Davis and both houses of the Legislature.”

Two prominent Washington, D.C.-based pollsters, one a Democrat and one a Republican, agreed that it is too early to talk about sweeping political trends.

“I don’t see the makings of a 1994-style wave yet,” said Alan Secrest of Cooper & Secrest, a Democratic firm.

The recall was a referendum on Davis, he said, in much the same way that Congressional races are usually decided by the dynamics in individual districts.

But Secrest did say that voters are beginning to pay more attention to issues that Democrats emphasize on the campaign trail, and are also raising more questions about President Bush’s stewardship — two facts that could create “a partisan breeze” in Democrats’ favor.

David Winston, president of The Winston Group, a Republican firm, conceded that there is some peril for the national GOP in the recall results. He characterized California voters as not so much angry as frustrated with Davis, because after five years in office he did not seem to have a plan to cure the state’s ills.

“If voters perceive that you’re not going to do anything in your position, they’re going to find someone else to do the job,” said Winston, a contributing writer for Roll Call.

By that logic, he said, Bush and Congressional Republicans could be in trouble if the public decides they haven’t done enough to tackle the country’s problems.

Joel Benenson, a New York-based Democratic pollster, said that at the House level there simply isn’t an opportunity for either party to make major gains, even if there is a late-breaking wave.

“The system is gerryrigged for incumbents,” he said. “We had 35 competitive races out of 435 in 2002.”

Even if there is no detectable political drift out of the recall, Ose said he hopes the high voter turnout last Tuesday will be duplicated across the country next year.

“If anything, the message you have from California means voting matters, and your vote can make a difference,” he said.

But even if the national implications of Schwarzenegger’s election are hard to determine, its effect on California politics is immediate and dramatic. Quite simply, Golden State Republicans, left for dead just a week ago, have been resuscitated.

“On a psychological basis, it puts the Republican Party in a much stronger position,” said Allen Hoffenblum, a GOP strategist and publisher of the California Target Book, which handicaps Golden State races. “And it gets candidates for Congress and the Legislature saying, ‘Hey, if Arnold can do it, I can do it.’”

Few Republicans are prepared to say that Bush can win California’s mother lode of 55 electoral votes next year — he finished 1.3 million votes behind Al Gore there in 2000. But Schwarzenegger’s victory means that Democrats will have to spend more in California on behalf of their White House nominee in 2004, draining precious resources from tossup states.

And with political moderates carrying the day in the recall election, some Republicans now believe that Sen. Barbara Boxer

(D-Calif.), one of the most liberal Members of the Senate, can be defeated in 2004.

“If any alarm bells are going off, they should be going off in the offices of Barbara Boxer,” Hoffenblum said.

“Having a Republican governor in any state is a plus [for a GOP Senate candidate],” said Sen. George Allen (Va.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Not everyone subscribes to this theory, however. Asked whether Schwarzenegger’s victory improves the GOP’s chances in the Senate race, Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), who was co-chairman of Schwarzenegger’s campaign and now heads his transition team, replied, “I don’t know about that.”

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), a 30-year veteran of Congress, said Boxer should be safe because the threat to California Democrats has passed.

“Voters took all their anger out on Gray Davis,” he said. “It still is a Democratic state. Schwarzenegger blunted the partisanship by offering himself as a nonpartisan.”

To be sure, the three Republicans currently vying for the Senate nomination — former Los Altos Hills Mayor Toni Casey, former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin and state Assemblyman Tony Strickland — could never be mistaken for Schwarzenegger clones, starting with their nearly nonexistent name recognition. What’s more, the conventional wisdom suggests that in the March 2004 Republican Senate primary, a conservative would be favored, diminishing the party’s chances of competing in the general election.

But Hoffenblum discounted that argument, noting that moderate Senate nominees have emerged from GOP primaries in the past two decades. Marin, for one, is already seeking to tie herself to the governor-elect.

“The similarities between Marin and Schwarzenegger is that they’re both nontraditional Republican candidates,” said Kevin Spillane, a GOP consultant working with Marin. “They’re both immigrants and positioned to run very strong in a general election.”

Most political observers believe the Republican Senate field is not yet complete, starting with former California Secretary of State Bill Jones, the last Republican to win a statewide election before the recall.

“Clearly the success in the governor’s race in California encourages me to take a closer look at the Senate race,” Jones told Roll Call late last week. “I’m seriously looking at it and will make a decision quickly.”

Jones was appointed to Schwarzenegger’s 60-person transition team, and there is some speculation that he could wind up with a high-level position in the new administration. Should Jones run for Senate, Strickland, a fellow conservative, might drop out.

Meanwhile, there is always the possibility that California voters will seek magic again in the Senate race, and there continues to be fanciful buzz about TV actor Kelsey Grammer or comedian Dennis Miller running for Senate as Republicans. Grammer and Miller could not be reached through TV network spokesmen last week.

Even if Schwarzenegger is too busy governing to do much stumping for Boxer’s challenger next year, he has already helped the party just by running and winning, a range of Republicans said.

“He has by virtue of being elected governor done more for the party in the last 60 days than we’ve done in the last five years,” Jones said.