In 2010 Governor’s Race, Money Will Rule

Well, girls and boys, here we are with another major election just around the corner. No, I’m not referring to the 2008 presidential race — that’s already bearing right down on us. I mean the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, the primary for which is just three short years away.

Who will run? Who will win? Who will replace the termed-out Terminator as president of the California Republic? It’s too early to predict, of course, but there are instructive lessons for both major parties in recent California political history. And you know the old saw about those who ignore history.

For our part — and with apologies to Al Gore — we Democrats have to get our arms around another sort of inconvenient truth: In this supposedly deep-blue state, we have lost six of the last eight gubernatorial elections. Four of those six defeats have been embarrassing landslides — Tom Bradley in 1986, Kathleen Brown in 1994, Cruz Bustamante in the 2003 recall (as the only name Democrat on the ballot), and party-favorite Phil Angelides in 2006. The average vote percentage received by those four candidates was precisely 36.75 percent. Angelides ended up with the exact same share of the vote, 39 percent, that Barry Goldwater received against LBJ in the 1964 blowout.

Interestingly, Gray Davis in 1998 was the only Democratic nominee since Gov. Jerry Brown in 1978 to receive more than 50 percent of the vote. (And Davis, lest people forget, took a leave as Brown’s chief of staff that year and managed the governor’s re-election campaign.) L.A. Mayor Bradley ran a tight race against Attorney General George Deukmejian in 1982, but still received only 46 percent of the vote. In 1990, former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein waged a close battle with U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson, but also came up with just 46 percent. (Davis got 47 percent in his 2002 re-election.)

There have been only four Democratic governors of the Golden State since 1898, two of whom were named Brown. Davis in ’98 was the first Democratic candidate in 20 years to win the governorship — and only the fourth in the entire 20th century. When he gnawed his way to a hard-fought re-election victory four years later, he became only the third Democratic governor since 1854 to win a second term — and the only one not named Brown.

We Democrats are very proficient at winning localized races for the Legislature and Congress, and down-ballot races below the governor’s office. Our party “brand” simply is more saleable than that of the GOP in low-visibility races, all other things being equal. But we’ve got to face the music: Fully five of our last six gubernatorial candidates have gone down in flames, and there are lessons to be learned from those races if we are to avoid getting singed again in 2010.

The Republicans, for their part, must come to grips with the fact that they have been pathetically uncompetitive in most statewide races for the past 12 years — pretty much since Gov. Pete Wilson decided to save his own hide in 1994 by beating up on illegal immigrants. This seminal act accelerated a Democratic trend in the state, particularly and predictably among Latino and Asian voters, the two fastest-growing population groups and voting blocs in the state.

The GOP has lost — count ’em — seven straight U.S. Senate races in California, most by huge margins. Despite the bipartisan gerrymander of 2001, another Republican-held congressional seat bit the dust last November, reducing their total to 18 members of the 53-member delegation. Since the early 1970s, Republicans have controlled either chamber of the state Legislature for just one year: the Assembly in 1996.

Despite his supposed faults and failings, the weakened Davis in 2002 led a Democratic sweep of all statewide offices for the first time since 1882. In both 1998 and 2006, the GOP won only two of the eight statewide constitutional offices — in three of those cases, with incumbents running for re-election (Secretary of State Bill Jones and Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush in 1998, and Gov. Schwarzenegger last year). When Steve Poizner won the insurance commissioner’s race last November, he became the only non-incumbent GOP candidate besides Arnold to win a statewide office since 1994.

Obviously, with these sad track records, neither a Democrat nor a Republican can possibly win the governorship in 2010. But I jest, of course.

I am absolutely serious, however, when I point out that in the 2010 governor’s race, the three most important factors will be money, money and money. As Angelides demonstrated beyond doubt, under the contribution limits of Proposition 34, passed by the voters in 2000 and in effect for the governor’s race for the first time in 2006, it is nearly impossible to raise enough to run competitively for chief executive of this mega-state.

Angelides was the presumptive frontrunner for most of the primary race, with an impressive slate of organizational and officeholder endorsements. But despite three and a half years of full-out fundraising as a statewide constitutional officeholder and former state Democratic Party chairman, Angelides would have been trampled by Steve Westly had he not been able to transfer $8.5 million in leftover funds from his 2002 re-election campaign (raised before limits went into effect), or benefited from a $10 million so-called independent campaign on his behalf. Conversely, if Westly had not been willing to part with $34 million of his own wealth in the primary against Angelides, he himself would have been uncompetitive.

On the Republican side, it was no accident that the only two 2006 statewide winners were the two free-spending multimillionaires, Schwarzenegger and Poizner. Poizner pumped more of his own fortune into the insurance commissioner’s race than Angelides raised in the entire general-election campaign for governor ($13 million vs. $10 million.

Among the potential Democratic candidates in 2010, only new attorney general and erstwhile governor Jerry Brown could possibly — repeat, possibly — best the primary field with a minimum of cash. Other than Westly, no other prospective candidate has ever raised dough for a governor’s race with Proposition 34 caps.

All other would-be governators of modest means on both sides will face the harsh reality of trying to bank sufficient funds to be viable under the Proposition 34 limitations. (And remember, candidates, one full year of the four-year gubernatorial cycle is already behind us. It’s 2007, do you know where your money is?)

It’s not a particularly happy prospect that California governor’s races essentially have been turned into roller derbies for rich people — and with supreme irony, due primarily to Democratic-sponsored campaign-finance reform measures. But in the 2010 race, while I don’t know who will be governor, I predict the dollar will be king.