He won and he won handily, but for Republican Sen. Pete Wilson, the quest for national stature still lies ahead.
“Now that he is no longer a freshman senator, Pete has got to get involved more in issues of public consequence, and I believe he will. Now, he can begin to blossom,” said Steven Merksamer, chairman of Vice President George Bush’s campaign in California.
Actually, Wilson did better in California than Bush. Wilson ran a deft campaign, obtaining the loyalty of his party’s conservative core and then strengthening his base of support with appeals to environmentalists, ethnic groups and elderly voters.
For a politician who does not light fires under voters, Wilson did what people said he had to do, run a tactically shrewd race.
“People have always underestimated Pete Wilson. You wonder what it will take for him to be taken seriously,” said Otto Bos, Wilson’s campaign manager.
The question of stature has dogged Wilson for a long time.
Political observers said he won his first term because voters were tired of his opponent, former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. This year, many said he would win because he had more money and because voters were not focusing on a Senate race in the midst of a presidential election.
As he celebrated his victory over Democratic Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy in San Diego Wednesday, Wilson said he won because he talked about the things that mattered most to people.
“I do think the race was about values and issues,” Wilson said, contending that his emphasis on law and order and the environment were the keys to his victory.
After his first six years in the Senate, Wilson had gained a reputation in Washington for tenacious advocacy for a variety of California interests, especially agriculture; for his support of the Strategic Defense Initiative, and for his independence from the Reagan Administration on environmental issues affecting California.
To the people back home, however, he was best known for the day in 1985 when, after surgery for an emergency appendectomy, he was wheeled onto the Senate floor to cast a deciding vote on a deficit reduction bill.
It was, perhaps, one of the only times camera crews from California followed Wilson to work, illustrating a problem faced by virtually all members of the state’s congressional delegation. So far from home, their activities are often out of the sight and minds of the people who elected them.
Last year, as Wilson was putting together his reelection campaign, one poll indicated that about 30% of the voters did not know enough about him to assess the job he had done.
“If there was a rap on Pete, it was that he spent too much time in Washington. He got too immersed in issues. He over-studied things he was interested in,” said Kenneth Khachigian, a longtime adviser to California Republicans who has written speeches for President Reagan and Gov. George Deukmejian.
“Pete needs to pick some area of interest, get out front on it and lead the charge. He needs to be publicly identified with an important issue if he wants to look forward to political longevity,” said John Hix, a consultant who specializes in Republican politics in the San Joaquin Valley.
Members of Wilson’s staff predict that he will make a deeper impression during his next term in the Senate.
“I think you are going to see Pete as a player on national environmental issues. He has credibility there. The vice president looks to him on that issue. I think that is going to be a real difference from his first term,” a source close to Wilson said Wednesday.
There are other ways in which Wilson hopes to have an effect on issues of broad public concern. He says he wants to play a role in shaping legislation to provide child care and long-term health-care insurance. He says those issues will be among the first tackled by the next Congress.
His party will continue to be in the minority in the Senate, and, thus, at a disadvantage when it comes to exerting leadership. But Wilson, who is currently assigned to three committees--Armed Services, Agriculture and Commerce--says he expects to play a larger role in the Senate.
“As a freshman, you spend a lot of time grounding yourself in detail. At least, I did. But as time goes on and knowledge and seniority increase, you have more opportunity to have an impact,” Wilson said recently.
At the same time, no one close to Wilson expects him to change his quiet, cautious approach to political life.
“Pete Wilson is not a ‘read my lips, no more taxes’ type of demagogue. Nor would it be in his nature to become one, even if 100% of his advisers recommended it,” said Chip Neilsen, general counsel to Wilson’s campaign.
Moreover, there is something to be said for low-profile politics.
William Schneider, Los Angeles Times political analyst, points out that Alan Cranston, California’s senior senator, did not face a really tough reelection fight until after he had spent time in the national limelight as a presidential candidate in 1984.
“Cranston never was in any real trouble until he ran for President and became known as a left-wing ideologue,” Schneider said.
Low-keyed as he is, Wilson could have done a lot worse than he did in Tuesday’s election. He beat McCarthy by 8 percentage points, 52.6% to 44.2%, the widest margin in the last two Senate races, including his defeat of Brown in 1982.
Wilson prevailed in 45 of the state’s 58 counties, winning heavily in Orange and San Diego counties, along the central coast and in most of the San Joaquin Valley. In most counties where he won, Wilson ran up totals of 55% to 60% of the vote cast.
He also reduced McCarthy’s margin in the key areas the Democrat needed to win. For example, McCarthy carried Los Angeles County but only by 8,745 votes. Wilson also won 50.5% of the vote in Contra Costa County in the Bay Area, a critical area for McCarthy.
McCarthy, who made his opposition to offshore oil drilling a key issue in the race, was most successful along the north coast of the state, winning every county from Santa Cruz to the Oregon border--a region preoccupied with the subject of offshore oil.
McCarthy won easily in his hometown of San Francisco, with 70.3% of the vote, and in neighboring Alameda County with 60.2% of the vote. But in both cases, he received about 5% less of the vote than fellow Democrat Cranston captured when he won reelection in 1986.
For McCarthy, the loss was not his first defeat in politics. He lost a tough race in 1966 for the state Senate and in 1980 was ousted as Assembly Speaker after a long and bitter battle. But this was the ambitious Democrat’s big chance to propel himself into a major statewide office.
Even though he was the underdog candidate throughout the race, his loss to Wilson could spell the end of his political aspirations. By the time of the next elections for governor or senator, the field of candidates is likely to be crowded with Democrats unwilling to concede McCarthy a second chance without a fight.
After the results were in, McCarthy was unwilling to speculate on what the future holds for him beyond the next few weeks.
“My wife, Jackie, and I are going to look for a sunny warm beach,” he said.
At a press conference at the Biltmore Wednesday morning, McCarthy faced nine television cameras--more than he had seen at any event during the entire campaign. McCarthy’s staff faced a problem they never experienced during the race: how to get their man into the crowded room past the television cameras and reporters blocking his way.
“Where were you a month ago?” McCarthy said as he sat down. “I didn’t realize there were this many cameras in California.”
Although the long campaign was sometimes heated and personal, McCarthy accepted his loss without animosity or recrimination.
“Today is the day really to let Pete Wilson enjoy his victory and for me to accept my defeat graciously,” he said. “I wish him a very fruitful six years.”
McCarthy was reluctant to talk about where his campaign went wrong, saying, “To start picking out things I might have done differently sounds like I’m making excuses, and I really don’t want to do that. I fought hard. . . . We simply didn’t communicate our message as well as the other side.
“I have no finger of blame to point anywhere. I accept the public’s decision on this race.”
However McCarthy, who may have been outspent by as much as $15 million to $9 million, said he was concerned about the vast amount of money it takes to win a Senate race in California. Asked what he would have done differently, he replied, “I probably should have started fund-raising six years earlier.”
The lieutenant governor, who received almost no television news coverage during the campaign, urged the news media to pay greater coverage to future Senate races.
McCarthy acknowledged that his decision not to debate Wilson on public television was probably a mistake. He had wanted to debate Wilson on commercial television before a larger audience, but the senator had refused.
“Maybe we should have grabbed what was there,” McCarthy said. “I thought enough heat would build on the Wilson campaign to force them to agree to a large television audience.”
Despite his disappointment, McCarthy was relaxed and cheerful at his meeting with reporters.
“We ran hard at it, we lost the race, and I accept that with great peace of mind,” he said.
Political science professors H. Douglas Rivers of UCLA and Bruce Cain of Caltech provided analysis of California election returns.