When the autopsy is conducted on the November elections, Friday, October 13, may be remembered as Black Friday for the moribund campaign of California gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides. On that day Willie Brown, legendary godfather of state Democratic politics, former assembly Speaker and former San Francisco mayor, was hosting one of his powerhouse Bay Area “Breakfast Club” meetings, where Democrats strut their stuff. Not only was Angelides absent, reportedly because he was busy dialing for dollars, but the prime speaking spot–sandwiched between Barbara Boxer and State Senate president pro tem Don Perata–went to none other than Angelides’s rival, GOP Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In case anyone missed the point, Brown, who had pulled Angelides from obscurity in the early 1990s, loudly proclaimed to the gathering that Schwarzenegger, now commanding a double-digit lead, was going to be re-elected “no matter what.”
That same morning, as his former mentor was giving Angelides up for dead, it was reported that the powerful California prison-guard union–a major Democratic Party funding source–was releasing $1.3 million of the $5 million in airtime it had reserved for the final two weeks of the gubernatorial campaign. The union was clearly cutting its losses and heeding warnings that the party’s down-ballot candidates, now threatened with being fatally sucked into Angelides’s downdraft, needed help–especially financial help. Indeed, in what might emerge as one of the great ironies of this fall’s midterms, the swelling Democratic electoral current seems likely to hit high tide on the eastern slopes of the Sierra and then recede, stranding true-blue California as one of the few Republican success stories–and perhaps allowing Schwarzenegger to emerge as one of America’s most popular Republicans. Unless there’s an unanticipated scandal revealing that he went on a camping trip with Mark Foley–or Klaus Barbie–Schwarzenegger is poised for easy re-election.
Though Angelides locked up the endorsements and machinery of the state Democratic Party early on, his campaign failed to ignite any enthusiasm among Democratic voters, who hold a wide edge in registration. With November 7 mere weeks away, only 61 percent of Democrats express a commitment to him, refusing to “come home,” as the strategists say. Angelides has relentlessly pounded Schwarzenegger as little more than a neatly trimmed beard for George W. Bush, but to little avail. “It’s true you have to differentiate yourself from the other guy,” says Allan Hoffenblum, co-editor of the nonpartisan political tip-sheet Target Book. “But you have to have a story that’s believable. Voters simply don’t believe what he says about Schwarzenegger.” One top national labor leader whose union has given millions to California’s Democratic campaigns agrees. “I think Phil’s been running the wrong campaign at the wrong time against the Schwarzenegger of two years ago but not the Schwarzenegger of today,” he says.
Today’s Schwarzenegger–prochoice, progay, pro-gun control, pro-stem cell research–is the result of one of the most dramatic political recoveries in memory. Busted a year ago after his ballot initiative package was routed in a special election, he offered a public apology and shifted to a vaguely liberal centrism. His timing was perfect: The Democrats who control the state legislature sensed Angelides’s weakness and made a strategic decision not only to cooperate with Schwarzenegger but also to hand him the tools of reconstruction. “None of this could have happened without the help of [Democratic assembly Speaker] Fabian Núñez or Don Perata,” said Hoffenblum.
With legislative Democrats working as his partners, and with Angelides’s campaign floundering, Schwarzenegger started building a solid record of gubernatorial achievement while studiously keeping a public distance from his fellow Republican in the White House. He appealed to labor by passing a minimum-wage bill and a measure forcing pharmaceutical companies to provide discounts to the poor. His education budget was endorsed by the same teachers’ union that months before had spent $58 million to defeat his special election initiatives. Environmentalists applauded his signing of the most advanced anti-global warming package in America. Even though Núñez serves as Angelides’s campaign co-chair, he has spent much more camera time with Schwarzenegger, jointly stumping for a $37 billion public works ballot initiative. Schwarzenegger has also forged a working alliance with the charismatic Democratic Mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, who neglected to endorse Angelides until Labor Day (and then only halfheartedly).
Some of Schwarzenegger’s reform legislation passed with almost no Republican support. But by hewing to a no-new-taxes economic policy and presenting himself as the only choice the GOP has if it actually wants to win, he has also held on to the Republican base. “Even the best magician can’t pull a rabbit out of the hat unless there’s already a rabbit in there,” said Hoffenblum. “In Arnold’s hat he had several rabbits: the Democratic legislature and the Republican voters.”
All of which has many California Democrats in a cold sweat. A weak turnout for Angelides could wind up ceding a number of other statewide offices to the GOP. Well-known Democrats like Senator Dianne Feinstein, state attorney general candidate Jerry Brown and treasurer candidate Bill Lockyer all seem secure. But the remaining offices are threatened, among these the secretary of state’s job, which was held by a Democrat until a scandal opened the way for Schwarzenegger to appoint a Republican last year. Now, Democrat Debra Bowen, who led a State Senate fight to force firms that produce high-tech voting machines to guarantee their equipment is reliable and accurate, is locked in a tight race for the post. Threatened, too, are a number of reform ballot initiatives, including some that tax oil and tobacco, as well as much-needed public works bonds. Democrats may also be haunted by the past decades’ gerrymandering, unable to cash in on a possible national GOP collapse because only a few districts are competitive enough to light partisan fires. “I ran Gray Davis’s campaign for lieutenant governor in 1994 when our Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Kathleen Brown, collapsed at the top of the ticket, running out of money and going dark on the air the weekend before the election,” says political consultant Garry South, who advised Angelides’s opponent in the primary. “She eventually lost by a fourteen-point landslide and dragged five of our seven other statewide partisan candidates down with her.”
So while national Democrats dream of a reverse of the 1994 landslide, South says that in California, unless there are changes, “we are in great peril of a repeat of 1994.”