Upsetting Upset for the GOP
Tuesday, March 5, midnight
Holding tonight's GOP California primary election "victory party" at the LAX Westin Hotel, just a few steps from the city's international airport, was a choice rife with symbolism. Sure, all the media attention in the final days of the campaign was fixed on the Republican side of the race. What's more, the party's freshly elected nominee for governor, Bill Simon Jr., had just staged one of the most dramatic and media-friendly, come-from-nowhere victories in recent American political history, finishing with nearly 50 percent of the vote in a three-way race and besting the very popular former Los Angeles mayor, Richard Riordan, by nearly twenty points. But more than a few of the Republicans schmoozing the hotel ballroom parties were consumed by the gnawing sensation that with any more victories like that of tonight, the whole California Republican Party might just as well pack up and head for the airport to find some other state to be a part of.
Fresh in their minds was the debacle of 1998. Back then, conservative gubernatorial nominee Dan Lungren led the Left Coast Republicans to their greatest defeat in forty years and effectively turned California into a one-party state, which has since been lorded over by Governor Gray Davis and his Democrats. And now it was looking like déjà vu all over again.
With the confirmation of the very conservative Simon as the official nominee--conservative enough to be distinctly unappealing to millions of swing suburban voters--"we may be looking at a 'Lungren Plus' by November," confided one glum top Republican official.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Last fall the Bush White House, in the person of top adviser Karl Rove, came out to California and convinced the avuncular and moderate Richard Riordan--who had just completed eight years of popular tenure as mayor of Los Angeles--to make the run for governor. Socially liberal, popular among Latinos, prochoice, progay and antigun, Riordan seemed the perfect candidate around whom to stage a California Republican renaissance. Davis seemed vulnerable. His bungling management of last year's power crisis and his reputation as an aloof and weak leader made him and California a juicy Republican target.
Riordan's campaign unfolded as a virtual cakewalk. His two challengers, Secretary of State Bill Jones and wealthy businessman Simon (son of Nixon's former Treasury Secretary), were distant rivals who barely registered in the polls.
But then the hammer dropped on Riordan. Not from his Republican rivals, but in the form of an unprecedented and devastating $10 million negative TV ad campaign run by Gray Davis. The Democratic Governor intervened directly in the Republican primary, slamming Riordan from both the left and the right (in one pervasive TV spot, Democrat Davis ripped at Republican Riordan for allegedly being soft on the death penalty).
The Riordan campaign came unhinged in the face of the Davis onslaught, and the former Los Angeles mayor only added to his woes by campaigning, well, pretty much as an amateur. Consequently, the last month has been politically rather surreal in California. With Governor Davis setting the negative tone, the Republican right wing ganged-up on Riordan and shredded his early lead. Riordan came under fire from his own party faithful for being too much of a closet Democrat. "All I can say is that as a partisan Republican, Dick Riordan did everything possible to deeply offend me," is how one aide to former Republican Governor Pete Wilson put it earlier tonight.
As Riordan's campaign began to nosedive, Bill Simon Jr.--a former federal prosecutor who has never run for elected office before--became the default preferred choice. Simon staked out a hard-line conservative position, emphasizing that he was strongly anticrime, firmly antichoice and even more firmly antitax. Trailing Riordan by some forty points just a month ago, he ended the race twenty points ahead in one of the lowest turnout primaries in state history. Only the most stolid of Republicans came out to vote, and they voted for the most stolid Republican.
"Poor Dick Riordan," said a seasoned GOP consultant and Riordan sympathizer over some stiff drinks at the Westin bar. "He forgot that to play in the Super Bowl, you first have to win in the conferences. He forgot that he had to win over the Republican base before he could take on Gray Davis. He tried to put together a center-left coalition to beat Davis's center-right coalition, and the Republicans just weren't going for that."