Notwithstanding the California Republican party's well-intentioned anointment of Sen. Pete Wilson as its gubernatorial nominee, it is no secret that he continues to have an uncomfortable relationship with the conservative wing that dominates it.
As we move closer toward the general election, conservatives across the state, and particularly in vote-rich Orange County, are now asking the question, "What would a Gov. Wilson offer to conservatives?" Some have already answered that question, and for them, the answer is: not much.
This could spell disaster in November, especially if the slickly packaged former mayor of San Francisco, Dianne Feinstein, wins the Democratic Party nomination over liberal Establishment candidate Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp.
Last March, the California Republican Assembly, the largest volunteer, grass-roots Republican organization in the state, adopted a vote of no-confidence in the senator. Pro-life and pro-family organizations--an integral part of winning Republican coalitions--are openly hostile to his candidacy. The conservative Young Americans for Freedom has already gone on record against him. In a futile but symbolic gesture, YAF even put up one of its own, Jeff Greene, to challenge the senator in the June primary.
So far, these are but chinks in the formidable Wilson campaign armor. Though most state conservative leaders are publicly backing Wilson, many are clearly wondering what happened to the Reagan Revolution in California. How is it that the one-time, anti-Reagan moderate mayor from San Diego might now become head of the party in the very state that produced "The Gipper"? (This frustration explains, in part, the enthusiasm among conservatives for the "renegade" primary campaign of "charter" Reaganite Bay Buchanan for state treasurer against the incumbent, Tom Hayes, who was appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian.)
Conservative Republicans have always been suspicious of the "progressive" mayor of San Diego. To begin with, they have never quite forgiven then-Mayor Wilson for campaigning for President Ford against favorite son Ronald Reagan in the 1976 New Hampshire presidential primary. These suspicions contributed to Wilson coming in a poor fourth in the Republican primary for governor two years later. By 1982 he learned a lesson. He then campaigned in the U.S. Senate Republican primary against several Ronald Reagan conservatives, including Rep. Barry Goldwater Jr. and Robert K. Dornan. While Goldwater was preoccupied with trading off his father's name and latecomer Dornan was in search of campaign funds, Wilson preemptively blitzed the airwaves with commercials tightly wrapping himself around support for President Reagan. Fellow candidate and "first daughter" Maureen Reagan was particularly galled. So were others. But it worked, and Wilson won what was clearly the make-or-break election of his statewide political future.
Once in the Senate, Pete Wilson went on to very smartly, and sincerely, carry the banner of many issues important to conservatives. From his berth on the Senate Armed Services Committee he defended the Reagan military buildup, railed against the Soviet threat and became an ardent spokesman for the Strategic Defense Initiative. He helped protect California's defense industry, the Long Beach Naval Shipyard and even got Mayor Feinstein to support home-porting the nuclear-powered battleship Missouri in liberal San Francisco. Wilson strongly backed the freedom fighters in Nicaragua and Afghanistan and was up front in his defense of Oliver L. North.
Occasionally, but never reliably, Wilson has voted with conservatives on key social and family-oriented issues. For these things and more, Wilson avoided a primary challenge from the right and deservedly received virtually unqualified conservative support for his 1988 reelection.
The problem now facing gubernatorial candidate Pete Wilson is that those defense and foreign policy issues so essential to his overall appeal to conservatives are no longer available to balance out his generally moderate-to-liberal campaign positions on many social, domestic and environmental issues. Unfortunately, the messages from his campaign and the press seem only to highlight the pro-abortion, pro-homosexual, anti-prayer in school, anti-growth, higher transportation taxes, costly mass transit, and other big-government elements of his platform (including the creation of another costly government Cabinet department to deal with the environment).
As a result, his yeoman efforts on behalf of the speedy-trial initiative seem pale. To many conservatives, the Pete Wilson of 1990 sounds a lot like the Pete Wilson of 1978.
Unlike Sen. Wilson's 1982 race against Jerry Brown or his 1988 reelection against Leo T. McCarthy, this year every conservative vote will matter--a lot. So, too, will the crossover votes of conservative Democrats who today keep many Republicans in office. We cannot afford to have any one of them sit at home or cast a protest vote for a third-party candidate.
What is of added danger to Wilson is that conservative Democrats are being told that Feinstein is a candidate they can finally support. Who's kidding whom? A conservative Democrat mayor from San Francisco is about as believable as Dana Rohrabacher being appointed head of the National Endowment for the Arts. Yet the liberal Southern California media persist in mislabeling the Lady from Babylon by the Bay largely because of her "traitorous" support for the death penalty. Look for a finely tuned "come home" message from the Feinstein campaign to conservative Democrats in November.
When the media are not calling her a conservative, they frequently remark that on substantive issues there is little difference between Feinstein and Wilson. Strike another blow to a proven Republican campaign axiom: Fail to differentiate yourself from your Democrat opponent and you lose.
Wilson's recent campaign commercials do not help. He emphasizes his environmental record, support for mass transit and the need to control those nasty developers. At best it seems an ill-timed ad for the primary season. At worst it emphasizes management, not leadership, and is not conservative on either count. Better he should first shore up his traditional Republican credentials.
The senator should probably not count on the evils of a Democratic-controlled reapportionment process to give him an added loyalty boost, either. Voters have shown either an inability to understand the issue or often view it in partisan terms. But if a state commission on reapportionment is created by the voters on June 5, the argument that a Republican governor is needed to keep the Democrat Legislature honest will be moot.
Finally, the precedent exists for an electorally significant percentage of the conservative vote to be cast in protest for a third-party candidate. That occurred in the Zschau-Cranston race. Despite a strong Republican Party sales effort aimed at ensuring conservative backing for the former moderate Rep. Ed Zschau, including four trips to California by President Reagan (two in Orange County alone), the word went out to the fall-on-your-sword conservatives to cast a protest vote for the pro-life American Independent Party candidate Ed Vallen. Vallen received nearly double the normal statewide and Orange County AIP vote that year (1.5%). Zschau lost to Alan Cranston by only 1.4%. While there are important differences between the seasoned Wilson with proven statewide electability and newcomer Zschau, the point is that a small electoral shift could prove fatal to him in a close race.
Despite what some political pollsters and self-appointed media opinion makers would have us believe, the successful Reagan electoral coalition has not dispersed. Nor have their beliefs in traditional family values, small government, low taxes, free enterprise and equal opportunity for that chance at the American dream taken a back seat to child care, global warming and acid rain.
Pete Wilson, known for waging smart, well-financed campaigns, has some reassuring to do on the right. To win in November, he has to count on every conservative vote in Orange County--and it is not clear yet that he is going to get them.