Wilson Defeats McCarthy’s Bid for Senate Seat

Times Staff Writer

Republican Sen. Pete Wilson won his fight for reelection Tuesday against Democratic Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy.

Wilson patted his wife Gayle on the arm and said, “We won” as the two flew home to San Diego from Los Angeles. He said his staff had “outfought, outsmarted the other side.”

McCarthy conceded defeat and extended “best wishes” to Wilson.

Wilson also claimed victory over a 36-year-old jinx which has seen no incumbent reelected to the Senate seat he holds. Wilson won it six years ago by defeating former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.


“I busted the jinx,” Wilson said.

Wilson campaigned as a “compassionate conservative” who reached out to a broad array of California interests, from big business to agriculture to ethnic groups and environmentalists.

With $15 million spent before Election Day, the contest between Wilson, 55, and McCarthy, 58, was the nation’s most expensive Senate contest this year.

Wilson combined tough rhetoric about crime and national defense with proposals for child care and long-term health care for the elderly. He made much of an environmental record that some groups saw as mixed at best, but which includes a strong stand against offshore oil drilling and sponsorship of a 1984 California wilderness bill.


Party’s Message

McCarthy’s campaign resonated with much the same message voters heard from his party’s Presidential candidate--a commitment to improve the lot of working families by providing more opportunities for housing, education, health care and child care, and a cleaner environment.

A big part of McCarthy’s challenge in facing a better financed incumbent was to make himself heard above the din of Presidential politics and to persuade voters that Wilson was merely paying lip service to social and environmental concerns.

California’s other senator, Democrat Alan Cranston, put his finger on McCarthy’s biggest problem when he said Wilson’s record “did not make him vulnerable in any particular way.”

Before Tuesday, McCarthy had lost only once in a 25-year political career that took him from the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors to the state Assembly, where he became Speaker, and then to the lieutenant governor’s office.

McCarthy will retain his present post.

The race matched two men who emerged from different backgrounds to represent opposing political philosophies.

The Yale-educated Wilson inherited a wariness of government intrusion into people’s lives from his father, a Midwestern advertising executive. McCarthy, the son of an immigrant San Francisco tavern owner, grew up in a working-class neighborhood where he acquired his view of government as a benefactor of the old, the sick and the needy.


What these two middle-aged politicians did share was a youthful zest for public service and an inability to communicate that excitement to campaign audiences. Wilson is wry and dry; McCarthy, earnest and flat.

With nearly 50 years of experience in California politics between them, Wilson and McCarthy are two durable public servants not well known to many average voters.

Their obscurity, however, presented opportunities as well as difficulties. As their campaigns demonstrated, each would try to reinvent the other, emboldened by the knowledge that many voters did not know much about either man’s record.

McCarthy portrayed Wilson as the plutocrat’s politician, a senator who routinely voted against Social Security and Medicare while boring out bigger tax loopholes for giant corporations. The McCarthy campaign also sought to exploit Wilson’s freshman status in the Senate. McCarthy said Wilson was a bit player on the national stage, unworthy of a state with the seventh largest economy in the world.

Wilson depicted McCarthy as a liberal in the mold of Brown and former Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird. McCarthy, Wilson charged, was soft on crime, weak on national defense, beholden to organized labor, peace groups and assorted entitlement seekers.

But if Wilson did enter the campaign from the right and McCarthy from the left, the race was for the middle, where both men figured to find most of the voters.

Appeared With Dukakis

Much like Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis, with whom he campaigned often, McCarthy fashioned an appeal to working families. Pledging to improve the quality of their lives, McCarthy reminded voters of his achievements on behalf of the environment, of nursing home regulation and child care.


Wilson campaigned on the slogan “making a difference for California” and boasted of a legislative record benefiting constituents across the political spectrum, including farmers, defense contractors, movie producers, small business owners, ethnic groups and environmentalists.

Appearing only occasionally with Vice President George Bush, the GOP presidential nominee, Wilson ran a more independent campaign than McCarthy. Although he was never critical of Bush, Wilson was quick to point out that, as an opponent of offshore oil drilling and a proponent of certain civil rights legislation, he had differed with the Reagan-Bush Administration.

Wilson and McCarthy both were frustrated by their inability to attract press attention on the campaign trail. Knowing that their commercial messages could get lost in a blizzard of ads, they hoped that the race would not boil down to a battle of 30-second TV spots. McCarthy knew Wilson could outspend him on TV advertising. And Wilson worried about McCarthy’s media team of Robert Shrum and David Doak, regarded as two of the more formidable image makers in the business.

But with the two candidates unable to agree to debate, the campaign quickly settled into a series of canned TV messages.

More often than not, McCarthy was on the offensive, at his most effective with an ad attacking Wilson’s record on toxic pollution. Wilson’s campaign team responded angrily that the commercial distorted the senator’s record, but they acknowledged that it had an impact on voters.

It was during that ad’s extended play last month, say both sides, that the race narrowed for the first time.

Wilson fired back with commercials presenting his version of his environmental record, reminding viewers of his co-sponsorship of a 1984 California wilderness bill and disputing McCarthy’s claim about toxics.

Going into the final week, all statewide polls showed that Wilson had regained a comfortable lead.

If it was a race short on drama, there at least was humor.

A McCarthy TV spot making fun of Wilson for sponsoring Dairy Goat Awareness Week, mistakenly pictured a mountain goat. The ad itself aroused the ire of dairy goat farmers. And the ill chosen mountain goat photo provoked Wilson’s best line of the campaign.

“I want to be around when Leo tries to milk that sucker,” he said.

In the campaign’s early going, McCarthy was badly outspent and outmaneuvered by Wilson. With nearly $3 million on hand, Wilson started the year with four times as much cash as McCarthy. Wilson quickly poured $1 million into a series of television ads.

April was the cruelest month for McCarthy.

It started with a fund-raising dinner that did little to boost McCarthy’s standing with conservative members of his party. The guest speaker at the dinner, Australian peace activist Helen Caldicott, compared America’s defense buildup to the construction of the gas ovens in Nazi Germany and likened Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to Jesus Christ. McCarthy applauded the speech but later, when questioned about it, said he did not share Caldicott’s views.

Meanwhile, Wilson was effectively countering McCarthy’s first flurry of campaign jabs.

When McCarthy started referring to Wilson as a “country club Republican,” Wilson produced evidence that McCarthy was a millionaire whose assets included two condominiums overlooking the golf course of the luxurious La Costa Hotel and Spa near San Diego.

With McCarthy belittling his record on the environment, Wilson beat him to an endorsement of Proposition O, the ballot initiative that would restrict oil drilling along the Los Angeles shoreline. And while McCarthy was arguing that he had long been an opponent of beachfront oil drilling, it was disclosed that his chief media strategists were producing ads for Occidental Petroleum Corp. in the campaign to defeat Proposition O.

Then, as McCarthy launched an attack on Wilson’s voting record on Social Security, Wilson aired a television commercial revealing that in 1982 McCarthy had voted to reduce cost of living increases for 700,000 of the state’s poorest Social Security recipients.