LOS ANGELES - He is a public official so despised, his own
supporters call him "distinctly loathsome." He is a human being so
colourless and stiff, people he describes as "great friends" (or
"buen amigos") say they barely know him. He ran a campaign so dreary
that turnout reached an all-time low, while third-party candidates
made historic gains. He was a Democrat incumbent so weak that after
outspending his inexperienced Republican challenger, Bill Simon, by
two to one, in a state where Democrats enjoy an advantage of 1.4
million registered voters, he won by only 330,000 votes.
Yet California Governor Gray Davis emerged from Tuesday's
elections as arguably the most successful major Democratic
politician in the United States and an early front-runner for his
party's 2004 presidential nomination. The Republicans, who no longer
have a clue how to win elections in the state that brought the world
Ronald Reagan, should be trembling in their loafers.
Nationwide, the story of the 2002 elections was a surprising
last-minute Republican tide that lifted nearly every contested boat.
But not Bill Simon's. Because of the national GOP wave, and early
returns that showed Simon neck-and-neck with Davis after one-third
of the votes were counted, Wednesday's newspapers declared the race
"surprisingly close." But it wasn't.
Simon ended up losing, 42.4% to Davis's 47.4%, an improvement
over the last pre-election poll by only a single percentage point.
While Republicans in Washington, D.C., were assuming control of both
the White House and Capitol Hill for the first time since 1952,
Democrats in California were poised to sweep all state-wide offices
for the first time since 1882. (One race is still too close to call,
but the Democrat led at press time.)
As a top state Republican told me on Wednesday, "You have an
incredibly popular President, and you have probably the most
unpopular Governor in the history of the country, and we still
couldn't beat him."
The California GOP has been an absolute basket case since 1998,
when Davis ended the Republicans' 16-year reign at the statehouse.
His predecessor, Pete Wilson, single-handedly created the party's
most pressing and confounding national dilemma: how to wean the
booming Latino population away from the Democratic bosom.
Wilson, whose first term (1990-94) coincided with a sharp
recession, murderous riots, deadly natural catastrophes,
unprecedented "white flight" and the largest foreign-immigration
influx in a century, responded to his woes by running for
re-election against illegal immigrants. His main campaign ad showed
a grainy image of Mexicans dashing across the border while a
narrator intoned, "They keep coming." He spearheaded a ballot
initiative, Proposition 187, to kick undocumented children out of
public schools and deny their parents emergency health care.
The strategy did wonders in the short term -- Wilson and
Proposition 187 each won by more than a million votes in 1994 -- but
it has haunted Republicans ever since. Though the initiative would
eventually be struck down as unconstitutional, Latinos responded by
applying for citizenship and registering as Democrats in record
numbers. Over the course of Wilson's second term, Latinos increased
their share of the state electorate from 8% to 14%, while
professional-class whites, who lean strongly to the right, fled the
state by the hundreds of thousands.
GOP strategists, faced with hostility from the fastest-growing
sector of the national population (Latinos jumped to 12.5% from 9%
between 1990 and 2000), have been trying to undo the damage ever
Since the mid-1990s, the most influential "anti-Wilson" in the
Republican Party has been none other than George W. Bush. As
governor of the state with the longest Mexican border, Bush came out
against Proposition 187, fought a movement to declare English the
state's official language and emphasized immigrants' aspirations
over their claims on the public purse.
During the 2000 campaign, Bush visited the Golden State more than
a dozen times, conducting interviews on Spanish-language broadcasts,
promising spectacular reductions in waiting times at the Immigration
and Naturalization Service, and spending upwards of US$15-million
trying to steal a state Al Gore was too confident to campaign
On election day, Bush's efforts were rewarded with a butchering.
Gore stomped Dubya, 53.4% to 41.7%, and every contested
Congressional seat went Democrat, not Republican. The diversion of
campaign resources away from such states as Florida nearly cost Bush
the White House.
So after the California Republican election debacles of 1998 and
2000, 2002 seemed up for grabs, along with the party's approach to
immigration and social issues.
Bush and his chief political strategist, Karl Rove, remained
convinced that social-policy "moderation" was the key to winning
such left-leaning states as California, so they helped draft former
Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, who is openly pro-choice and has
a history of working well with Latinos. The conservative grassroots
wing of the state GOP countered with businessman Bill Simon, the
family-values son of William E. Simon, treasury secretary in the
Depending on your position, it was the pragmatists versus the
purists, or the sell-outs versus the suicidal. As one self-described
"Taliban conservative" put it to me at Simon's election-night party,
"Latinos are going to be automatic Democrats anyway, so I don't know
why we bother.... We need 10 years in the wilderness so we can
rebuild around our core values."
Gray Davis, a notoriously ruthless campaigner who spent much of
his first term raising unholy sums of money (often from people with
pending state business on his desk), saw Riordan as his biggest
threat and spent $10-million before the Republican primary to
portray the septuagenarian former mayor as a bumbling hypocrite on
such social-conservative issues as abortion.
Simon supporters took the bait, labelling Riordan a "RINO":
Republican in Name Only, not fit to hoist the party banner. After
running a disorganized campaign that insulted the party base,
Riordan got stomped, 30% to 49%. The two wings of the party never
really kissed and made up, hobbling the drive to unseat a reviled
Governor with 60% disapproval ratings.
Gray Davis has presided over two Californian catastrophes: the
dot-com collapse and a deregulation-fuelled electricity crisis that
has caused blackouts and cost the state tens of billions of dollars.
The two events combined to obliterate state finances, which were in
a surplus when Davis took over. In 2002, California's budget deficit
was a crushing US$23.6-billion, or one-quarter of its revenue. "A
deficit which," The Economist wrote, "if it were being run by a
country, would send the currency crashing and usher in the
International Monetary Fund."
Yet, as much as anything else, his icy personal style and
relentless campaign fundraising have turned off Californians. In a
series of spectacularly lukewarm newspaper endorsements, Davis was
described, variously, as a "calculating cash register" who has
"demeaned the office of governor many times over" with his "cashbox
So why did anyone endorse or vote for the guy? Because millions
of people agreed with the Democratic assessment that Simon was out
of step with Californians on social issues, and because Davis cut
his stumbling opponent to ribbons during the campaign, portraying
him as a corrupt and incompetent capitalist too busy losing fraud
lawsuits to do things such as vote.
Simon never managed to charm disgruntled Democrats or the state's
sizeable bloc of independents, and instead kept getting snagged in
pointless campaign missteps and conservative-pleasing sops that
turned off the undecideds.
In the end, Republicans came out in only slightly higher numbers
than expected, and 18% of them voted for someone else. Rumours of a
write-in campaign for Riordan (or Arnold Schwarzenegger) persisted
until election day, with several polls showing the former mayor
would have been competitive. Within hours of the election,
recriminations on both sides of the GOP civil war were at a fever
"I think the Republican Party has become irrelevant in
California," one GOP moderate told me. "[Liberal] Republicans acted
as if they didn't even want to win in California," barked The
American Prowler, a conservative Web site.
With the national election proving to be such a wipeout for the
Democrats, that leaves Gray Davis standing as one of the only
success stories in the country. He has always had presidential
ambitions -- in the campaign's lone one-hour debate, he spluttered
evasively when asked if he would rule out a 2004 run -- and several
of his potential competitors -- such as Richard Gephardt, House
Democrat leader for four terms --spent the latter half of this week
resigning in disgrace.
Davis presides over the country's largest economy, has prime
access to the Democratic fundraising honey pots of Hollywood and the
Silicon Valley, and is a decorated Vietnam War veteran who adores
the death penalty. He has spent much of the past two years governing
and campaigning against George W. Bush, whether it be trying to
blame the President for the electricity fiasco, expanding stem-cell
research in California or passing automobile emissions standards
much tougher than Washington or Detroit could ever conceive.
Davis's feared political attack-dog, Garry South, was already
setting his sights on bigger and better things within hours of the
election. "I don't think the national Democrats had a real message
in this campaign," he told Thursday's Los Angeles Times.
The message Davis is sending to the national Democrats carries an
unsettling resonance. After all, there is some precedent for a
despised Californian politician surviving the political wars to
emerge as an unlikely candidate for president. But not everyone has
fond memories of Richard Nixon.
Matt Welch is a freelance writer living in Los
Angeles. His work is archived at www.mattwelch.com