Web exclusive 3/8/02
Simon v. Davis
happens in the eight months until California's general election?
By Michael Barone
The victory of Bill Simon Jr. in the California Republican gubernatorial primary comes as little surprise to those who
have been watching the race. Richard
Riordan, the former Los Angeles mayor,
who over the years had supported Democrats as well as Republicans, started off the race last fall with about 40 percent of
the vote. His opponents, businessman
Simon and Secretary of State Bill Jones,
initially unknown to most voters, essentially started off with zero. That meant that about 60 percent of the votes were up
for grabs. And much of the Riordan support was soft: Voters had some positive feelings about him, but in many cases they
were probably lightly held.
The smart strategy for Riordan would
have been to go positive, with a message
that would answer the Roger Mudd question: Why do you want to be governor? What do you want to accomplish? (In 1979,
Mudd, then with CBS News, asked Edward
Kennedy why he was running for president; Kennedy mumbled and gave no convincing answer.) Instead, Riordan talked
a lot about the need to nominate the candidate with the best chance to defeat incumbent Gov. Gray Davis and about abortion, an issue on which most Republican primary voters disagreed with him (he's
pro-abortion rights; they're antiabortion). Like
many pro-abortion rights Republicans, he complained that abortion opponents talk too much about
abortion, and in the process he talked much
more about the issue than they do. But this
just succeeded in antagonizing antiabortion Republicans, and voters don't think tactically, anyway; they vote not for the candidate
with the best chance to win but for the candidate who they believe will do the job the way they'd like it done. It did not help that
Riordan made various embarrassing gaffes
on the campaign trail. But that could have
been part of his charm, as it was when
he was running for mayor of Los Angeles in 1993 and 1997, because in those races he gave voters a clear sense of what he
wanted to do. He didn't do that in 2002.
Enter Gray Davis. By the end of 2001,
Davis had raised some $36 million for his
campaign. In the first 10 weeks of 2002,
he spent some $10 million on ads$3 million on positive ads boasting of his record, $7 million on negative ads slamming Riordan. He attacked Riordan for having once said abortion was murder and for
questioning capital punishment, and he
charged that Riordan flip-flopped on both
issues. Davis strategist Garry South says
that when the ad blitz began, he had no
clue that Riordan would lose the primary; the idea, he said, was to weaken Riordan and to overcome any positive message he sent. But the Davis spots, plus attacks by former Republican Gov. George
Deukmejian on Jones's behalf, raised
Riordan's negatives. Two weeks before the
primary, he was down to about 30 percent
of the primary votewhich means that
about 70 percent of it was up for grabs.
In there grabbing for a slice was Simon.
Unlike Jones, he had money to spend on
television. He spent most of it on positive
ads, stressing his promise of no new taxes
and a capital-gains tax cut, accountability in education, and rebuilding California's infrastructure. He spotlighted his endorsement by Rudolph Giuliani, for whom he worked in the New York U.S. attorney's
office in the 1980s. He criticized Davis's
handling of the electricity mess and other
issues. He lobbed some negative attacks
on Riordan as well. Perhaps most important, he established himself as a conservative Republicanlike most of the 70
percent of Republican primary voters who were up for grabs. It
was only a matter of time until he got most
of their votes. He inched up in the polls
from 7 percent to 24 percent to 31 percent
to 37 percent. On primary day, Simon won
49 percent to Riordan's 31 percent.
The interesting question now is: What
happens in the eight months until the general election? Garry South notes that this is the longest gap between a primary and general election for governor in American history (although it's been nearly that long for years in Illinois). Davis's
$7 million in ads tearing down Riordan
was well spent but irrelevant now that Riordan is not the nominee. His $3 million in positive ads doesn't seem to have
done much good. In the latest polls, he was
trailing both Simon and Jones by small
margins (within the margin of error)
in a state that Al Gore carried by a 53 percent to 42 percent margin, even though Bush spent $2 million there and Gore
nothing. Fewer people voted in the Democratic than the Republican primary, even though there are 1.5 million more registered Democrats than Republicans. And
of the 29 percent of registered Democrats
who did vote on Tuesday, 19 percent voted
for candidates other than Gray Davis.
Yet the conventional wisdom is that
Davis will win because Simon is too conservative for most California voters; in this case the conventional wisdom may very
well be right. It is just a question of time
before Davis begins running commercials
slamming Simon for his positions on abortion (against) and gun control (he got an A from the National Rifle Association).
Simon, says South, "is going to be untouchable to many mainstream voters in California." The interesting question is
whether opposition to abortion is political death in a high-visibility statewide race in the nation's largest state. There is much
evidence that it is. Abortion opponents
have consistently lost high-profile races
in California since 1990: George H. W.
Bush and Senate nominee Bruce Herschensohn in 1992, Bob Dole in 1996, gubernatorial nominee Dan Lungren (by 58
to 38 percent!) in 1998, George W. Bush
in 2000. The best anyone has been able to
garner is 43 percent of the vote. Only proabortion rights Republicans have won (Pete Wilson in 1990 and 1994) or come close to
winning (Senate nominee Michael Huffington in 1994). "I just think the antichoice thing is a killer," says one veteran California Democratic consultant. "Every pro-life candidate has been destroyed since the
end of the Cold War."
His reasoning is interesting: When another issue takes precedencethe Cold
War, for exampleCalifornians will vote
for antiabortion candidates, as they did
for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and
the elder George Bush in 1988. The question today is not where Californians are on abortion, but how important the issue
is. Simon barely mentioned it in the primary campaign, and his strategist, Sal Russo, says that he will argue that as governor there's nothing that he could do to abridge the right to abortion; it's been
voted into the California Constitution.
"When we focus-grouped abortion, there
was a big turnoff," Russo says. "They don't
want people talking about it a lot. It's
not an issue to people." It will be astonishing if Davis does not run an abortion ad. What's not clear is whether a majority of voters will decide that an antiabortion candidate is so alien to their values that he's
an unthinkable choice, or whether they
will regard it as less important than other
issuesincluding those on which they are
ticked off at Gray Davis.
And there are such issues. Davis has always been a careful politician. He served for nearly eight years as Gov. Jerry Brown's
chief of staff and learned well from Brown's
mistakes. Unlike Brown, he supports capital punishment and takes a tough line on crime (actually, Brown, as mayor of Oakland, has been taking a tough line on crime, too; he, too, has learned from his mistakes). Unlike Brown, he does not appoint
wackily liberal judges. Unlike Brown, Davis
served in the military in Vietnam, and
he likes to let people know it. Davis has
taken liberal stands on conservative ballot propositions, but, unlike Brown, he carries them out faithfullyor at least tries
to appear to do sowhen they pass.
Davis's problems have come when he
has faced problems Brown never faced.
California's botched electricity deregulation was one. In retrospect, it is plain that if Davis had allowed small rate increases in summer 2000 and had allowed the companies to buy electricity ahead
of time, California would have avoided the
rate spikes early last year. And Davis's solutionhaving the state buy electricity delivery systems and enter into long-term
contracts for electric powerhas left the
state heavily indebted and paying much
higher rates than it could get now at the
marketplace. Davis seems to have acted to
shore up his poll numbers in the short
term, at the cost of much lower poll numbers in the long term. Voters may not understand the details of the electricity
issue, but they know it's a mess.
If abortion utterly disqualifies Simon,
all this doesn't matter. But if abortion
doesn't disqualify him, it obviously matters very much. Davis has $26 million (and can raise more), but he can't spend it at
the $5 million-per-month rate of the primary campaign and make it to November.
And he can't spend it all on negative ads
aimed at his opponent. His strategy will
certainly include positive ads on his accomplishments on education, transportation, public safety. ... Higher test
scores, high funding for transportation infrastructure, 3,000 new cops, and tough gun control legislation: California voters will hear about these things some time
before November. But it may not be an utterly convincing message. The schools still aren't as good as they should be, especially
for Latino children (who account for 1 out
of 3 children in California public schools).
Traffic can be horrendous: Try getting
from Santa Ana to Riverside on Route
91 some afternoon, or out Interstate 580
from the San Francisco Bay area to what
used to be "Condit Country" in the Central Valley. High crime, while reduced, is still a worry in some neighborhoods.
The gap between the 40 percent Gray
Davis is getting in polls and the 54 percent
Al Gore got in 2000 is a measure of how
this relatively moderate Democrat is underperforming his party. Part of this may be explained by doubts about Davis's competence; on electricity, for example, he has arguably not performed as well as voters
expected. But part of it may reflect a lack
of trust. Davis is unbeloved by fellow politicians in both parties (many liberal Democrats hate him); he is a man whose ambition for 30 years has been to be governor of California and who has achieved that
ambition by carefully and, over long periods of time, taking popular stands on issues and by quickly seizing opportunities
to disqualify his opponents or to persuade
them not to run. But does he authentically
care about the voters he has tried so hard
to please? And can they trust him to serve
their interests if he wins a second term and
is barred from running for a third?
Clues to the answers to those questions
may come from how he handles an issue
raised in the primary by Richard Riordanbilingual education. In 1998, California voters passed Proposition 227, which limited Spanish-language instruction in
schools to one year unless parents request
a waiver. So-called education experts (and
those with a vested interest, like bilingual
teacher unions) predicted disaster, but in
fact test scores have soared and Latino
children are finally being taught English
well enough to give them a chance to take
advantage of America's opportunities.
Davis (and his Republican opponent, Dan
Lungren) opposed Proposition 227, but,
after it passed, promised to carry it out.
He did so through 2001, on occasion creatively and in defiance of liberal Democrats in the Legislature. Now, however, he
may be turning the other way (see my Web
piece Feb. 8, 2002). The state Board of Ed ucation, made up of Davis appointees, is
considering administrative changes that
will allow the vested interests to keep hundreds of thousands of children in Spanish-language instruction for many years.
Davis has consistently insisted that his appointees must reflect his policies. If he adheres to that policy, the board will reject
the new regulations in its meeting this
month. This is not just an arcane issue.
There are 4 million Latinos under 18 in
California today; how well they learn English could determine the future character of America.
Richard Riordan, in perhaps the finest
moment of his campaign, spoke out for the
Latino children and against so-called bilingual education. He said of the state Board of Education's proposed regulations, "It's worse
than nonsense. It's downright evil." This
was obviously a matter of conviction:
Riordan was the only major politician to
support Proposition 227 and donated a
large sum to the campaign to pass it; he
has given megabucks to Latino-oriented
charities; he really cares about these children and wants to see them succeed in America. If Gray Davis caves to the bilingual education special interests, he will give Bill Simon an opportunity to learn
from the man he beat and emphasize an
issue that can work for him in several ways.
It works on substance: Most California
voters continue to back 227and probably more than ever since they have seen it
lead to higher test scores. It works on character: If Davis allows the state Board of Education to subvert the intent of the voters, he will have broken one of his key
promises to voters and will have proved
himself untrustworthy. Why trust him
again? And if Simon cares as much as
Riordan, it shows an authenticity that
seems lacking in so many political candidates. And the issue works to help a Republican nominee with the particular problem Republicans face in Californiatheir
unpopularity among the growing number
of Latino voters. The reason: If he explains
the issue as Richard Riordan did, it will
be clear that he really cares about the
future of Latino children, that he wants to
give them a chance to achieve in America,
that he believes they can and should be interwoven into the American fabric.
The conventional wisdom about the California governor's race is that Simon doesn't have a chance. That conventional wisdom may prove to be right. But it may also
prove to be wrong. And if it does, this could
be an interesting race indeed.