Will Davis’ Plan to Thwart the GOP Work?

Ethan Rarick, a visiting scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, is the author of "California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown," forthcoming from the University of California Press.

California Republicans have been quick to express their dreams for this year’s gubernatorial campaign. They hope that 2002 proves to be a distant echo of 1966, when a Democratic incumbent meddled in the GOP primary only to lose the general election.

The incumbent 36 years ago--Pat Brown--wanted to get San Francisco Mayor George Christopher, a moderate, out of the way so he could instead face a conservative political newcomer Brown thought weaker. Brown ended up losing to his hand-picked opponent, Ronald Reagan. Republicans hope that the similar strategy used this year by Gov. Gray Davis to knock off Richard Riordan will backfire on Davis.

And it’s true that there are some striking similarities. In 1966, polls showed Christopher, like Riordan in 2002, was weak among conservatives but that he had the best chance of beating the incumbent in the fall. And Reagan, like Simon, was a conservative favorite who had never been elected to public office.


To do in Christopher, Democratic operatives dug up his old conviction for violating milk-pricing laws--Christopher had once owned a dairy--and leaked it to a friendly columnist. It was a minor case, and one that had been used against Christopher before, but this time it stuck. Christopher sank in the polls, never to fully recover. A month later, Reagan won the primary and captured the Republican nomination.

But there are also some critical differences that suggest the lessons of 1966 might not apply this year. For one thing, Pat Brown was weaker than Gray Davis is today. Brown was seeking a third term, not a second, and voters had simply grown tired of their paunchy, affable governor.

By contrast, for all his troubles, Davis showed more early strength this year, running slightly behind Riordan and far ahead of Simon.

Reagan, on the other hand, was from the beginning a far stronger candidate than Simon or Riordan. His career as an actor, however ridiculed, had made him a celebrity. More than a year before the voting, polls showed him ahead of other potential GOP candidates, and he never fell behind. Even without the subtle Democratic help, Reagan might have won.

Perhaps most important, California itself had experienced a turbulent run-up to the 1966 campaign. The Free Speech Movement at the UC’s flagship Berkeley campus had launched the era of student protests. A bitter and divisive initiative aimed at repealing the state’s fair housing law had pointed up racial divides. The 1965 Watts riot, in which 34 people died and more than 4,000 were arrested, typified urban rage and despair. Campus protests against the Vietnam War began to percolate. The result was an angry, restive electorate ready to toss out the incumbent.

In fact it was Brown who faced a tougher primary fight than Reagan when Democratic L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty, who ran to Brown’s right, drained off 42% of the vote. So it was the GOP, not the Democrats, who emerged from the primary unified and ready for the fall.

This summer, Simon will have to attack Davis with issues--high-priced energy contracts, a state budget deficit--that carry a far lower emotional temperature. However bothersome, kilowatt prices do not churn the gut like violence in the streets.

On primary election night, Simon made the comparison to Reagan explicit. The early Reagan, he said, was “short on experience, but long on principle, vision and optimism.” It was a nice try to tie himself to the man who beat Pat Brown. But unless something changes dramatically, it’s more likely that in 2002, it’s the California Republicans, not the Democrats, who will have orchestrated a battle they are destined to lose.