Los Angeles

The Republican wave that swept the country seemed to crash and recede right at the California border, but only barely. You’d think incumbent Governor Gray Davis’s victory over millionaire businessman Bill Simon Jr. and the first Democratic sweep of statewide offices in 120 years would fill Democratic hearts with joy. Instead, Davis’s surprisingly narrow single-digit win left a lot of Democrats here disappointed and just as many–if not more–jittery about party prospects in 2004.

Armed with a massive, $68 million war chest and faced with a bumbling challenger who even Republicans said ran the most inept campaign in the nation, Davis was expected to finish with a long, double-digit lead. But his 47-to-42-percent victory netted him five points less than he won when first elected four years ago. And Republican Simon–whom Davis greatly outspent–finished strong enough to surprise many of his supporters.

“We should’ve buried Simon and the Republicans,” says a Los Angeles labor official who put in several eighteen-hour days for the Democratic ticket in the final week. “Instead, it feels like only by the grace of God we dodged a train wreck of our own.”

Indeed, sifting the California election results, it’s easy to conclude that a very different politics from that of the Bush White House is struggling to be born on the Left Coast. But a lack of leadership from the Democratic governor’s office–to say the least–has failed to fully capitalize on that alternative potential.

Thanks to California’s massive demographic and economic shifts of the past decade, labor and especially Latino voting power has increasingly marginalized the gun lobby and along with it the Christian right. Even the state’s trademark middle-class tax rebels who conjured up the notorious Prop 13 more than two decades ago have been routed. A move by homeowner groups in the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood suburbs to secede from the city was smashed by a broad coalition fueled by organized labor. School bonds were handily passed, even in once-taxophobic Orange County. And the increasingly liberal state electorate installed and retained a solidly Democratic legislature that passed a landmark global-warming bill, granted paid family leave and widened organizing rights for farmworkers.

But the governor refused to lead on most of these liberal issues and had to be cajoled by his own party base to sign them into law. One can only imagine how California liberals and progressives could have been mobilized over the past four years if a more Wellstonian spirit had emanated from Sacramento.

Instead, mounting Democratic disappointment with Davis produced sky-high unfavorable ratings–60 percent of the electorate expressed disapproval of Davis. It was no surprise, then, that millions of state Democrats simply didn’t show up to vote. Turnout in the overwhelmingly Democratic bastions of Los Angeles and San Francisco was the lowest in a decade. The third-party vote was the highest since 1934, giving the Green Party’s Peter Camejo more than 5 percent of the vote statewide.

So Davis will begin his second term under clouds of apathy, if not antipathy. And he’s not likely to make very many new friends as he confronts a whopping $24 billion budget deficit, in large part a product of his mishandling of last year’s energy crisis. Los Angeles County’s public healthcare is collapsing and Davis could suffer some collateral political damage if it goes down completely. And the ACLU continues pushing a class-action suit against Davis on behalf of tens of thousands of public school students who have rats and mice in their classrooms but not enough textbooks.

GOP strategists were guardedly optimistic after Tuesday’s results. Many had gone into the election fearing their party could suffer a greater loss than in 1998, when its gubernatorial candidate, Dan Lungren, finished with a paltry 38 percent.

“What our late polling found instead is that for the first time in years, there was no longer an automatic anti-Republican bias among California voters,” says a leading GOP consultant. “No question that if the Democrats had fielded a less unpopular candidate they would have done better. But our candidate was a boob, and he came within a handful of points of unseating Gray Davis. I’d say the next election is wide open for us.”

That last prediction may just be Republican spin. But maybe not. Arnold Schwarzenegger (who sponsored an after-school program initiative overwhelmingly approved by voters, with the active support of the pro-Democrat teachers’ union) is already being groomed by the GOP as the probable gubernatorial candidate for 2006. More than one Republican operative was sufficiently heartened by the narrow contest to toy with the idea of advancing the calendar. “I’m thinking maybe we should convince Arnold to take on Barbara Boxer next year,” said a former aide to ex-GOP Governor Pete Wilson. “He’d have a real shot.”

California is indeed a one-party state. But only technically, since it’s ruled by a party whose leadership lags way behind its base. And so while Golden State Republicans are definitely down, they are hardly out.