Monday, August 02, 2010

California Governor Race

Race of the Day

California Governor

August 2, 2010
92 Days Until Election Day

Status: Republican Open
2008 Presidential Result: Blue State (West)

Outlook: Tossup (R)

Being the Chief Executive of America's most populous and often most influential state is quite a plum political position. Over the past several years, it has also been an extremely difficult one. For some brief background, 1998 saw the election of the first Democrat to the position after a 20 year drought. By that point, the Golden State was considered a bastion for that party, but Gray Davis proved to be pretty unpopular in office. Despite that, he managed to win reelection in 2002 over a weak opponent with a very uninspired electorate. Davis's woes continued and less than a year later, he was thrown out of office in an historic recount vote and replaced by the internationally renown Hollywood celebrity, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The state's new GOP Governor began hellbent on instituting conservative reforms to the liberal state but suffered a setback at the ballot box on some ballot measures he supported, and almost overnight, Schwarzenegger moved to the left and in the opinion of many, began to govern the state as if he were a Democrat. He managed to win a landslide reelection in 2006, but along with the state's Democrat controlled legislature, the Governor has become more and more unpopular, down to Gray Davis recall levels.

The fact that such an unpopular Republican holds the office definitely does not help the prospects of Republicans for electing a new Governor, but the situation is far more complicated. The Democrat legislature is just as reviled, and the Republican nominee is certainly not running to continue the legacy of Schwarzenegger, but as an outsider to politics all together. In fact, the Democrat nominee for Governor has at times spoken more favorably about the state's current GOP Governor.

That Democrat is 72 year old Jerry Brown, the son of the man who preceded Ronald Reagan as California's Governor, and who himself succeeded the Gipper and occupied the office between the years of 1975 to 1983. He is now eligible to once again become Governor because the state's term limit law was not in effect when he was the main man in Sacramento. During that time, Brown's Administration was often tumultuous and he was referred to by many as "Governor Moonbeam" for some of his personal quirks. In addition to being defeated in a 1982 U.S. Senate race, Brown also fell short in three attempts (in the '70's, '80's, and '90's) to become his party's Presidential nominee. After his last defeat in 1992, Brown looked destined to fade into political oblivion as something as a gadfly ideologue whose time had passed. By the end of that decade though, the former Governor was elected Mayor of Oakland, and despite a mixed record, name recognition and the state's political lean helped him parlay that in 2006 to the statewide office of Attorney General. It was clear that Brown had his eyes once again set on the Governor's Mansion and no strong Democrat emerged to challenge him all the way to the state's primary.

Brown's GOP opponent is businesswoman Meg Whitman, the former CEO and President of Ebay, who has lived in California since 1998, and has a net worth of over a billion dollars. She became heavily involved in politics by supporting her friend Mitt Romney for President in the 2008 primaries, and then became a high ranking official in the John McCain general election campaign. In the Republican primary, she defeated another wealthy Republican with a high tech background in State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. In contrast to Brown's coronation, that primary was expensive and often nasty, as Poizner staked out positions to Whitman's right, and made much hay about the fact that she had sometimes not voted and at other times had backed Democrats. Ultimately though, Whitman's money and the polls which showed her as a stronger nominee than Poizner propelled her to a wide victory in the primary.

Since then, polls have shown the race to be quite tight. Some have had Brown up by a small margin, while others have had Whitman narrowly ahead. It is going to be a very expensive race that will largely play out on television in the various media markets with paid ads. As in most tossup races, the debates may also prove to be decisive. Whitman is campaigning as an outsider with a record of creating jobs and who can deliver change to the state's government. In contrast, Brown is stressing that his long experience in government is key to knowing how to make the state work for the better, especially after the tenure of the current non-politician Governor. It will be quite a contrast of ideology, personal style, and yes, age. In some manners, the dynamics are similar to the Barack Obama- John McCain 2008 contest for President.

Any Republican, even in a strong GOP year, has a difficult task in winning statewide in California. Nobody should expect to see Schwarzenegger on the stump for Whitman. Both candidates will be expected to try to use the incumbent's record against their opponent in the race. This race is most definitely a tossup, but I have to give a very slight advantage to Whitman to pull it off. Voters in the state clearly want to shake things up, but the reelection of the very liberal 72 year old Brown may be seen by enough voters as an uncessary step backwards... to the 1970s. She will spend heavily to hammer him on the airwaves focusing on the theme of his "Lifetime in Politics and Legacy of Failure." The state's other high profile race for the U.S. Senate may potentially fall in the other direction on Election Day, but in the race for Governor, being a fresh-face outsider probably leaves Whitman in a slightly better position.

Brown's ambition for national office may be a thing of the past, but if a billionaire Republican woman can be elected as Governor of the nation's most populous state (and succeeds), Meg Whitman will have quite a bright future herself.

Whitman campaign link:

2010 Governor races predicted thus far: 1 D, 4 R
Predicted Gubernatorial totals thus far: 8 D, 10 R