The Blog

King of the Ring

Big-time strategists, a jungle recall/election, and Democrats scheming over a live microphone. You won't believe what's happening in California.

12:00 AM, Jul 24, 2003 • By HUGH HEWITT
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GEORGE GORTON, Ken Khachigian, and Sal Russo are the three best Republican political consultants that California has produced over the past quarter century. Today they work for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Darrell Issa, and Bill Simon, respectively.

All three have played the part of key strategist to one or more of the California GOP's legendary big names. Each knows every serious money man and county party operative by their first name, and every newspaper and television station from Eureka to Chula Vista.

On the Democratic side of the aisle, Gary South, not-so-affectionately know as The Mouth, has departed the Golden State for assignments elsewhere, but Bob Mulholland remains, easily the nastiest Democratic operative in the nation. He's the Yosemite Sam of the Dems, eager to shoot first and aim later. He's also the new mouth of the man sometimes known as Governor Clouseau.

The looming vote on whether or not to recall Gray Davis is the political equivalent of professional wrestling's "King of the Ring" event: Everyone gets inside the ropes and starts swinging. The campaign is likely to last ten weeks (or less) from the date of certification of the need to hold the election. Davis is widely regarded as toast, but no Democrat has yet declared in the race to succeed him. If even one does, every other serious Dem has to jump in, all with their consultants in tow. Gorton-Khachigian-Russo could find themselves in a free-for-all not only among themselves, but also with storied names from the opposite side of the consulting arena like Darry Sragow, Bill Carrick, and Team Shrum. These big-name, big guns could end up working for businessman Al Checchi or Congresswoman Jane Harmon, both of whom have huge personal resources and a grudge against Davis--the governor used his brassknuckles on both of them in a primary in 1998. Neither has yet taken the pledge not to climb into the recall ring.

The buy-in to the event is generally estimated to be at least $10 million per candidate. The three GOP contenders can put up the table stakes in an instant, and the big names on the Democratic side can easily pour in that much as well. In fact, once this campaign gets underway, the dollars flooding into the race look to be enormous.

Gorton has pointed out the difficulty in such a setting: According to the conventional wisdom of campaigns, if anyone goes negative against an opponent, both the attacker and the target suffer, which benefits those who stay out of the line of fire. Davis's difficulties are even more extreme: He's the lone big target and his $80 million war chest from last year is long gone.

To this gloomy picture has been added the incredible stupidity of 11 Democratic assemblymen who met on Monday--in what they thought was secret. They neglected, however, to turn off the live microphone in the room, and their strategizing was broadcast throughout the state Capitol.

Among the precious insights gained from this debacle was hard-lefty Jackie Goldberg's assessment on why it was necessary to let the budget stalemate go on despite the enormous damage it is doing to the debt rating of the state and the business climate generally: "Some of us are thinking that maybe people should see the pain up close and personal, right now."

Said another conspirator, Assemblyman Fabian Nunez: "The folks that are heading up the anti-recall effort think if you don't have a budget, it helps Democrats in the recall effort."

This is what passes for policymaking in Sacramento--the Democratic caucus meets on how to stonewall solutions in order to prop up the most incompetent governor in the state's history despite their daily public speeches on the need to move forward on solving California's fiscal meltdown.

Did I mention that there is a movement to encourage Arianna Huffington to jump in, that Ozzy Osbourne is said to be assessing the publicity bonanza of a filing, and that last year's Green party nominee, Peter Camejo, has not only declared but already has a great-looking website up and running? And it's only a matter of time until every radio talkshow host in the state--save me--declares.

Personally, I'm hoping that Cher, Shaq, or Jack get in. Maybe even Barbra.

Even if the field stays fixed with just Davis and the big three Republicans, it will be the most extraordinary non-presidential race in American history. King of the Ring 2003, coming to your cable network soon.

Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. His new book, In, But Not Of, has just been published by Thomas Nelson.