The Magazine


Jun 15, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 39 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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ONE THING LAST WEEK'S California primary for governor did not prove is that voters reject candidates who spend heaps of their own money on their campaigns. Political reporters, few of whom could self-finance a campaign, and other politicians naturally resent such candidates, but voters don't much care. The real story of the California primary is contentment: Two voters out of three told the Los Angeles Times exit poll that California is moving in the right direction. In the case of the Democrats, who voted in especially large numbers (they had a choice among would-be nominees for governor, unlike the Republicans), something even stronger was at work as well: a fierce determination among party loyalists, who have been rallying around their president, to keep matters as they are. Hence the big victory for Gray Davis, who has held high public office in California for 23 of the last 25 years.

Davis was also helped by his opponents' mistakes. Jane Harman entered the race only after Dianne Feinstein bowed out on January 20. Harman's knowledge of California government and its impact on the lives of voters was thin, and it showed. California Democrats, having nominated Feinstein (three times), Barbara Boxer, and Kathleen Brown in the 1990s, felt no compulsion to nominate a woman once again, and Al Checchi's preparation was much more impressive. But he spent most of his money, starting last fall, on commercials preaching the need to shake things up, the need for change. That message ran counter to the sensibility of Democrats rallying to Bill Clinton after the Lewinsky affair became public on January 21.

Then, when Harman zoomed up in the polls, Checchi went after her. It was the classic three-candidate-primary mistake: Candidate A attacks Candidate B, hurting her but also himself -- and helping Candidate C. Checchi presumably figured he had enough money to rehabilitate himself and then if necessary savage Davis. But in the last four weeks Davis, with $ 9 million raised mostly on the West Side of Los Angeles, and Harman, with over $ 10 million of her own money, were able to continue spending. Davis, ostentatiously courting Democratic powers like the unions and San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, coasted in. You might say he own the election on two days in January, when Dianne Feinstein bowed out of the governor's race and Monica Lewinsky arrived on the political scene.

What about November? Either candidate could win. Both Davis and Republican Dan Lungren are two-term statewide incumbents, positioned for success in times of contentment. Davis, the lieutenant governor, will presumably pander less to core Democratic constituencies than he did during the primary; Lungren, the attorney general, has taken care not to consort with the hard Right. The problem for both will be prescribing a cure for the ailing parts of the public sector -- notably the state's incompetent public schools -- while sounding a soothing note. Davis's tack has been to criticize outgoing governor Pete Wilson for divisive stands on issues. Lungren's has been to project the sunniness and confidence of the 1950s California in which he grew up.

The gubernatorial-primary numbers -- the fact that many more votes were cast for the three Democratic candidates than for Lungren -- probably don't forecast the final outcome. In Alaska and Washington, the two states that have long used the "all-party primary" system that California instituted last week, voters tend to flock to candidates who face a serious contest. A better measure of party strength: In each of the two down-ballot all-party primaries in which both parties had contests, the Democratic candidates together averaged 49 percent of the vote, the Republicans 47 percent -- less than the Democratic edges in elections for the U.S. House and California assembly in November 1996, similar to the small Democratic edge in the 1996 and 1994 primaries, and smaller than the large Democratic edge in the 1992 primary.