Jerry Brown’s Uphill Climb

We all know that California is a blue state, with two Democratic senators and a record of favoring the Democratic presidential candidate in every presidential election since 1992.  Barack Obama won California by more than 2 million votes.  But the governorship has tended to be more red than blue. 

Since Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr. defeated Richard Nixon in 1962, Republicans have won eight elections for governor, Democrats four, if you count the Gray Davis reelection of 2002 that was reversed in an ignominious recall in 2003. Currently, the likely Republican nominee, Meg Whitman, is narrowly leading Attorney General and former Gov. Jerry Brown in the polls. 

Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, has already come close to wiping out her primary opponent, Steve Poizner, the state insurance commissioner and one of the few Republicans to win a statewide office other than governor in recent years.  In the general election, Republican candidates for governor, who are more moderate than their state party (e.g., Pete Wilson, Arnold Schwarzenegger), can be very hard to beat statewide.

This is the year of public anger against both government and Wall Street.  November’s election is also the first to follow a highly unpopular Supreme Court decision that opens the floodgates to corporate and union money in campaigns.  A self-financed candidate like Whitman can run as an outsider to government and also sidestep the debate over business funding of her campaign by largely paying her own way. Brown, on the other hand, is dependent on unions to raise independent funds to match her.  She can call him a tool of unions while she floats above it all.

Whitman has already spent $46 million, and it has been money well spent. She overcame early stumbles about her lack of a voting record.  She now has a three-point program that makes not a lick of sense on the planet where government actually operates but will resonate with the tax-averse electorate of California: Lower taxes, save education, create jobs.  This program may do well with the independent voters profiled in the most recent Los Angeles Times/USC poll. 

President Obama’s popularity has fallen, and Republicans are enthusiastic about their prospects in November.  While California is a highly diverse state, more California voters tend to be white and middle class than in the overall population. A recent Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll, for instance, showed Obama’s popularity at 58 percent among all adults, but only 52 percent among likely voters.  The same poll gave Whitman a 44-39 lead over Brown among likely voters.  Back in 2006, another PPIC study, “California’s Exclusive Electorate,” showed that if nonvoters joined likely voters at the polls, California government would be significantly more favorable to public investment.

What can Jerry Brown do? 

The wild card in the race is the voter verdict on Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The once-popular Terminator is now in the Dumpster of public opinion.  If Brown can make the case that Whitman would be another experiment with amateurism in government with the hope of a different result, he may get a hearing.  No Democrat has been better at balancing the outsider and insider roles than Brown, who can say that he has more experience than Whitman and is just as big a critic of government. 

At the same time, Whitman has attacked Arnold’s signature achievement, the AB 32 Climate Change legislation.  This position is vulnerable to attack and could hurt her with voters concerned about the environment.  And, of course, Brown will tie her to the state and national Republican parties.  If the economy improves, and the Democratic base continues to regain some of its enthusiasm following the passage of the health care bill, Brown could rise with that tide.  With the Republican party base driven to a frenzy, Whitman may not be conservative enough on some issues to hold its support.

Brown has smartly said he would not raise taxes without a vote of the people (hard to argue against that).  The most difficult thing, though, will be to bust Whitman on the “snake oil math,” as he recently called it, that has worked for Republicans since Ronald Reagan pioneered it decades ago. No one has had much success persuading the voters that their fondest fantasies are unrealistic: that there is sufficient waste, fraud and abuse to maintain services while cutting taxes. 

Most polls show that Latino voters are the most receptive to public spending, even if it means raising their own taxes.  In the long run, the prospects for Democratic leadership in California will likely emerge from an electorate that is more minority, more working class and more open to public investment.  Until then, Democrats will have to continue to do some careful sailing to win the California governorship.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration, and Justice at California State University, Fullerton.