Upsetting Upset for the GOP

Upsetting Upset for the GOP

Los Angeles
Tuesday, March 5, midnight


Los Angeles
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.”

Simon ran a more professional and tough-minded campaign, and–when it became opportune–he didn’t flinch from slinging some mud balls at Riordan, with whom he has a long-term personal friendship. The problem with Simon is that he’s virtually unknown and has no discernible political track record. Even his conservative credentials are unsure. He re-registered as an independent just as Ronald Reagan was coming into the White House.

“There might be eight months to go before November,” said the GOP consultant. “But this race is going to be decided in the next ten days. The only prayer Simon has is to come out immediately and introduce himself to California voters and define himself in some appealing way. He better do that–otherwise, you can be sure Gray Davis will.”

Indeed, Davis wasted no time in turning his guns on Simon, the same man he so directly helped to nominate by way of his anti-Riordan onslaught. Accepting his own party’s virtually uncontested nomination for re-election tonight, Davis was already depicting Simon as a dangerous right-winger who had to be stopped from dragging California “back to the past.”

“Bill Simon is a true-blue think-tank conservative. I am a practical problem-solver,” Davis said. “I believe many of his ideas are out of step and out of touch with most Californians. We need to keep moving California forward. Not backward–and certainly not to the right.

Meanwhile, as the GOP victory party broke up tonight, California Republicans seemed divided and wary about the future. Republican rainmaker Brad Freeman–a Dubya intimate and big-time fundraiser for Riordan–politely but firmly argued with Martin Anderson, a Simon booster and a former adviser to the Reagan White House.

“I’m not sure we’re going into November with the strongest of candidates,” Freeman lamented.

“You’re so wrong,” retorted Anderson. “Simon is going to give us a strong party and he’s the best man to challenge Gray Davis. You’ll see. His positions perfectly match those of the Bush Administration, and that’s the best way to win.”

“I respect your opinion a lot,” Freeman answered. “But I’m not sure. I’m just not sure.” He thus verbalized the clouds of doubt that hung so darkly over tonight’s Republican celebration.

PS: The really good news out of California tonight is that San Joaquin Valley Congressman Gary Condit–famous not so much for his close working alliance with Gray Davis but for his relationship with the disappeared Chandra Levy–lost his bid for renomination by a wide margin to one of his former aides. Goodbye Gary, and good riddance. From the Bay Area comes word that Oakland Mayor (and former governor and presidential candidate) Jerry Brown coasted to re-election to a second term, beating challenger Wilson Riles Jr. by a 2 to 1 margin.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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