MATTOLE VALLEY, CALIF. — Parched, the eastern third of the nation worries about drought. The vast center of the country is still blanketed in snow. Here in Northern California, most areas are four to five inches ahead of the normal rainfall. Otherwise, it seems a normal March — a feast for the eye. Blue skies alternate with dark clouds that bring brief, heavy showers. New grass blankets the hills; fruit trees are in blossom in the valleys, with bright yellow mustard covering the fields like giant throw rugs.
California’s politics this season are also normal, which is to say, unlike anything that has gone before. Having just held their first post-Presidential-year early primary (for decades they were in June), Californians did as they often do: they confounded conventional wisdom. Richard Riordan, the former Los Angeles mayor who had been recruited by the White House, lost the Republican primary for Governor to William Simon, Jr., son of the late one-time U.S. Treasury Secretary. Riordan, surrounding himself almost entirely with Democrat aides and consultants, ran what amounted to a general election campaign, forgetting that he first had to win a Republican primary.
Governor Gray Davis who, beneath that bland exterior, is a take-no-prisoners campaigner, dumped a great deal of money into a negative advertising campaign aimed at Riordan. That, combined with Riordan’s tin-ear approach to Republican voters, led to their desertion in favor of Simon, whose affable, “citizen-politician” demeanor provided an appealing alternative. He beat Riordan by 16 percentage points.
The earlier conventional wisdom was concocted by media pundits and by one Gerald L. Parsky, a businessman and prodigious fund-raiser for George W. Bush in 2000. Parsky, like liberal Republicans everywhere, convinced himself that the California Republican Party could grow only by making itself over into a sort of Democrat Lite organization. After the 2000 election, as head of Bush’s “Team California” of fund-raisers, he engineered an effort to vest party decision-making in a group he headed, taking away what little authority was held by the party chairman. The party leaders resisted, but did not want to anger the Bush White House, so reached an uneasy compromise that gave Parsky some of what he wanted.
Riordan, a RINO (Republican in Name Only) par excellence, fit Parsky’s idea of the perfect candidate. He had not counted on the erratic Riordan’s ability to make mostly wrong political decisions. There is also more to his candidate choice than meets the eye. Parsky was long a close friend of candidate Simon’s father (dating from Treasury days) and later they were partners in a number of business ventures. Ultimately, as the saying goes, they “parted company” and, it is said, the elder Simon in his later years was no longer on speaking terms with Parsky.
Shortly after Simon won, Parsky issued his “advice” to the candidate, complaining that the California GOP suffered from an “extremist” image. He said that unless Simon adopts “the formula I describe” (e.g. “pro-choice” on abortion; gun control) it is doomed to yet another defeat.
Despite Parsky’s my-way-or-the-highway “advice,” Simon will stick to such issues as the state’s huge budget deficit, Davis’s bungled energy policies, education and limited government. So far, they’re working for him. In a Public Opinion Strategies poll taken a little over a week ago, respondents said they would “definitely” or “probably” vote for Simon over Davis by 48 to 41 percent. There was also an anybody-but-Davis question: “Do you believe Gray Davis should be reelected or should a new person be elected Governor of California?” This brought worse news for the incumbent: By 55 to 36 percent, respondents favored “a new person.”
Favorable-unfavorable comparisons are also good for Simon. Bush was rated “favorable” by 69 percent, with 26 percent “unfavorable”; Simon 45-to-20. Davis was judged “favorable” by 42 percent, but “unfavorable” by 50 percent. Most campaign professionals believe that such high unfavorables are almost impossible to reverse. Davis’s hope lies in driving up Simon’s unfavorable rating, which he will no doubt try to do with massive advertising.
Simon’s victory has been compared with Ronald Reagan’s in the 1966 gubernatorial primary. Reagan, like Simon, was the candidate the Democrats wanted to face, thinking he would be a pushover. This year, they believe that Simon’s anti-abortion views will do him in in a state where “pro-choice” is the majority view. Reagan held similar views on abortion, but over the years never “retailed” the issue. Instead, he answered questions, stating his opinion honestly, but in a let’s-agree-to-disagree tone. This approach didn’t hurt him politically, nor should it hurt Simon if he handles it in a similar way. After all, he’s running for Governor, not for the Supreme Court of the United States.