Advertisement

GOP Candidates Not Cashing In on Prop. 209

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The pitched race for this swing congressional district sounds just like the kind of contest Republican leaders had in mind when they once dreamed about the political benefits of an initiative to end affirmative action programs in government.

But here in this East Bay Area suburb, a conservative Republican incumbent has been forced into the fight of his life by a challenger whose campaign is largely financed by national Democrats sensing an opportunity.

This would be the time--the Republican thinking went--that Rep. Bill Baker could tie his reelection campaign to the popularity of Proposition 209 and force Democrat Ellen Tauscher to reluctantly defend a losing issue.

The reality, however, could not be much different.

Advertisement

“I just don’t think this is a cutting issue,” Baker said recently. “We are ahead on the issue--and it’s a 2-to-1 issue. And I guess I could beat it to death if that was my style of politics. It isn’t.”

Something has happened to the California Republican playbook for 1996.

With less than a month remaining until the election, Proposition 209 is, so far, the GOP’s parachute that didn’t open. Leaders of both parties said in interviews that--so far--not a single candidate in any of California’s 152 races for the Legislature or Congress has treated Proposition 209 as anything more than a minor interest.

Opinion polls still indicate that the initiative to end race and gender preferences in government hiring and contracting as well as college admissions is headed for a lopsided victory. A recent Times Poll found registered voters favoring the initiative 60% to 25%.

Advertisement

But the cool reaction from Republican candidates represents a battlefield victory for opponents of the initiative. As one Republican official put it, the highly emotional and controversial debate about the initiative’s impact on race relations has made it “radioactive” for GOP candidates.

“The Democrats have already beat the crap out of Republicans for being mean,” the official said. “If you’re a candidate in a tight race, you are not going to take the chance of feeding into that.”

Consultants and other political watchers are divided about whether this reaction was predictable.

Allan Hoffenblum, the Republican consultant for Baker and other California GOP congressional and legislative candidates, said the debate about affirmative action lacks the intensity of 1994’s clash over illegal immigration via Proposition 187 because voters see less evidence of a problem in their daily lives.

Advertisement

“Illegal immigration has a higher intensity because people think it does affect them,” he said. “I never thought this would develop as a hot-button issue. I don’t think it is a wedge issue.”

On the other hand, Bruce Cain, a political science professor at UC Berkeley, said Proposition 209 has taught California observers a lesson about the electorate’s racial sensitivities.

Cain said the affirmative action debate has demonstrated a social ambivalence that was not predictable after the strong support two years ago for Proposition 187. That initiative, now stalled in the courts, sought to stop public benefits for illegal immigrants.

“The ‘90s have been characterized by these shifts of mood--from the year of the woman to the year of the angry white male to the year of ambivalence,” Cain said. “Our political climate is almost like the New England weather. So I think this is surprising. I think after 1994 a lot of people expected [Proposition 209] would be a big issue.”

Advertisement

Last year at this time, the specter of a national debate about affirmative action caused President Clinton to announce a new policy called “mend it, don’t end it.” About the same time, Republican rival Bob Dole authored a federal bill to mirror the proposed California initiative.

In California, state Democratic leaders were torn about whether to answer the Republican initiative with an alternative ballot measure or an opposition campaign. Meanwhile, state Republicans were gleefully predicting an election-year tail wind for their candidates.

Nobody was a bigger booster than Gov. Pete Wilson. He privately told Dole’s presidential campaign that this was the ticket to victory in California. He had, in fact, used the issue as a major platform for his own ill-fated presidential campaign a year earlier.

Wilson also helped persuade the state Republican Party to invest as much as $1 million to help the initiative. Today, he remains a believer that the issue has Republican coattails.

Advertisement

“We recommend that not only candidates run on this, but that public policy groups, associations and other individuals come out in support,” said Sean Walsh, Wilson’s press secretary. “We have a clear issue of right versus wrong.”

John Herrington, chairman of the state Republican Party, echoed Wilson’s continued enthusiasm for the idea. But he said he also recognizes the political reality seen by some GOP candidates.

“When we write the story of the 1996 election . . . we will begin to analyze what happened,” he said. “I think it’s going to turn out to be one of the biggest things that happened anywhere in America.”

Perhaps the most influential decision that shaped the California debate about Proposition 209 is Dole’s cautious and uncertain approach to the issue, several observers said.

Advertisement

A heavy advertising campaign on the issue would help frame the debate about Proposition 209 in a Republican context, they said. But Jack Kemp, the GOP vice presidential nominee, recently ended any expectations that Dole would try to promote the initiative in California.

In a meeting with reporters, Kemp promised to keep some distance from the issue and indicated the potential risk to society of engaging in such a controversial subject.

“We are not going to campaign on a wedge issue,” Kemp said. “We have endorsed [the initiative], but as a transition to a new era. . . . We are not going to let this issue tear up California.”

Political watchers said that decision makes it more difficult for a legislative or congressional candidate to try to run on the issue by themselves.

Advertisement

“In order to be a wedge issue, it has to be something people are talking about,” Cain said.

Democratic candidate Tauscher estimated that during her campaign appearances in San Francisco’s East Bay, the issue of affirmative action is only raised in about a quarter of the political forums.

She admits that, as an opponent, she might be on the unpopular side of the issue. But she almost taunted Baker, the GOP incumbent, about raising the issue against her.

“If you think Bob Dole has a gender gap--Bill Baker has a gender gap,” she said. Tauscher predicted her opponent will steer clear of Proposition 209 because it could further weaken his appeal to the Republican women voters who may decide the outcome of this race.

Advertisement

Most observers expect this to be a close one. It is a maverick political district, one that elected Baker to the House the same year--1992--it backed Democrat Dianne Feinstein for U.S. Senate and Clinton for president.

Now, Democrats have nominated a wealthy Wall Street investment banker who has promised to spend “well over $1 million"--at least part of it from her own pocket. Tauscher’s finance statement this week reported a $215,000 contribution from the candidate.

With the money, Tauscher has already produced three television commercials even though they have to be broadcast from San Francisco to reach this faraway suburb.

Baker counted out any television of his own and said he expects to be outspent at least 2 to 1.

Advertisement

As for issues, this race and this district lack a dominant crisis or theme. The economy here is rolling along very well. Crime is always a concern, but it is not a major problem.

As a result, the candidates have spent much of their time talking about each other. Baker’s campaign paints his rival as an out-of-touch millionaire, while Tauscher tries to link the incumbent with the unpopular images of the Republican House of Representatives.

“We are running against tax-and-spend liberals, and they are running against conservative extremists,” Hoffenblum said.


Advertisement