Beverly Hills

Golden State voters resoundingly handed The Arnold Show its cancellation notice Tuesday night. All eight ballot measures that constituted the special election called by Governor Schwarzenegger–widely considered a referendum on his political agenda–went down in flames.

As word came toward midnight that the most tightly fought of the ballot props was going to be defeated–a so-called paycheck protection measure that would have effectively barred public employee unions from making political donations–a restaurant full of Hawaiian-shirted nurses broke into a victory conga dance, singing, “We are the nurses, the mighty, mighty nurses!” They had come together for an “Aloha Arnold” election-night party ready to bid farewell to their Republican rival.

Wiping the running mascara from her eyes, the emotionally charged leader of the 65,000-member California Nurses Association, Rose Ann DeMoro, proclaimed total victory, telling the elated crowd, “A year ago Arnold said he was kicking our butts. But tonight, you know what? The shoe’s on the other foot!” Indeed, it was back in January that Schwarzenegger targeted organized labor as the major obstacle to his “Year of Reform” agenda. Unionized nurses, teachers and firefighters lustily joined the battle, spent more than $100 million in an anti-Arnold ad campaign, drove the governor’s favorability ratings down into the subarctic mid-30s and now can take full credit for handing him a crushing defeat that throws his 2006 re-election chances straight into the air.

Along with paycheck “protection,” voters also turned down the governor’s proposals for granting himself more budget authority, for political redistricting and for extending public school teacher probation from two to five years. So sweeping was the anti-Arnold backlash, voters rejected what was previously thought to be a slam-dunk measure, also endorsed by the governor, that would have imposed parental notification on minors seeking an abortion. Even a deceptive prescription-drug measure backed by $80 million in support from Big Pharma was knocked out.

“Here is a lesson that Democrats across the country can learn,” said consumer activist Jamie Court, who has been advising the nurses union. “Follow the lead of these nurses and firefighters and run a populist campaign against corporate interests and see that you can win.”

The special election was the costliest in state history, with at least $250 million spent on campaigning. Schwarzenegger had tried to use the vote as a direct appeal to the people over the heads of a strongly Democratic legislature. But the governor’s proposals and his campaign skewed hard to the right, transforming his image in a very blue state from centrist dealmaker to partisan polarizer. The out-of-calendar vote sparked a wave of voter disgruntlement that the governor’s political team failed to quell. The timing of the vote–as anti-Bush sentiment was mounting nationwide–no doubt also contributed to the governor’s defeat.

Just upstairs from the nurses, in a ballroom of the posh Beverly Hilton Hotel, Schwarzenegger appeared briefly before his dispirited supporters as the votes were still being counted. While he refused to acknowledge defeat, he contritely hinted at a more bipartisan approach to governance. “There is much work to be done,” he said. “Believe it or not, I want to thank the people who were so vocally passionate against us.”

At the nurses’ victory party, actor/activist Warren Beatty responded to Schwarzenegger’s vow, saying, “I don’t think he has any choice. The governor now has to work in a bipartisan fashion.” But there seems to be little incentive for Arnold’s opposition to let up on any of the pressure they have brought to bear. In anticipation of Tuesday’s defeat, speculation had been rampant that the governor might recruit a high-profile Democrat to serve as his postelection chief of staff to give his administration a more centrist sheen. Yet the cinemascope dimensions of Schwarzenegger’s defeat have made him politically radioactive.

Democrats and organized labor will now surely increase their efforts to defeat the governor’s re-election next year. “Everything we did yesterday, we’re gonna do tomorrow,” said the nurses union’s De Mauro. “Where are we gonna be tomorrow? Wherever Arnold is.”