Election a Test of Governor’s Clout
California’s first campaign since the recall is careening toward a finish that will serve as a broad gauge of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s clout while testing emotional appeals on gay marriage and immigration in a wide scattering of primaries.
Those crosscurrents have defined the campaign in the absence of a hotly contested Democratic presidential primary in California.
For Republicans, the emergence of gay marriage and immigration as top issues in Tuesday’s election marks a significant shift. For nearly a decade, many leaders of the California GOP have tried, with mixed results, to avoid battles over social issues that complicate the party’s fight to break Democrats’ dominance of the state.
But a confluence of events -- from City Hall weddings in San Francisco to a White House immigration plan -- has turned those issues into central themes of campaigns from San Diego to the northern Central Valley.
“Immigration and gay marriage are showing up in just about every primary,” said Dave Gilliard, a GOP strategist for candidates in several of the party’s hardest-fought races.
Also showing up in the primaries -- and even more so in proposition races -- is the popular Republican governor. He backs just three candidates, but “anybody and everybody who has any connection to him is trying to use it,” Gilliard said.
Even in Democratic races, candidates are tussling over who best strikes the kind of outsider image that Schwarzenegger promoted so successfully in the recall race.
In Fresno, Democratic congressional candidate Jim Costa has tarred primary rival Lisa Quigley as a candidate beholden to “the powerful pharmaceutical lobby.” Quigley, in turn, has run a television spot that shows piles of money and -- with a cash-register “ka-ching” -- labels Costa “for sale to special interests.”
Candidates’ attempts to tap voter disgust with Washington and Sacramento come as polls show that Californians remain unhappy with government’s handling of the economy and fiscal matters -- despite an improved mood since the October recall.
“You can certainly find plenty of anger and frustration out there,” said Mark Baldassare, research director of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
The election Tuesday is likely to draw 6.5 million of California’s 15 million registered voters to the polls, according to Secretary of State Kevin Shelley. That projected 43% turnout would mark a sharp drop from the 54% who voted in the March 2000 presidential primary, when George W. Bush and John McCain were vying for the Republican nomination while Al Gore and Bill Bradley were running in the Democratic race.
But this time, President Bush is unopposed, and in the Democratic primary, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts is the runaway favorite over Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
As a result, Tuesday’s election is above all a vote on Schwarzenegger.
Underscoring the high stakes, the governor campaigned Saturday in Van Nuys, Bakersfield and Fresno, urging Californians to vote yes on Propositions 57 and 58, the budget measures that he portrays as crucial to California’s fiscal recovery. Throughout the campaign, he has largely ignored two other measures: Proposition 55, a $12.3-billion school bond issue, and Proposition 56, which would lower the vote threshold for the Legislature to pass a budget.
“Our state is in a mess, because our politicians in Sacramento have spent too much money,” Schwarzenegger told 200 supporters at a morning rally in a Van Nuys school gym.
By investing weeks of time and millions of dollars in campaign advertising, Schwarzenegger has tied his political fortunes closely to the fate of his two ballot measures. Strategists from both major parties say that voter approval would enhance his leverage with the Legislature but that a loss could undercut his strength in the Capitol and encourage defiance by Democratic lawmakers.
“He’s got an immense amount at stake,” said Michael Shimpock, a Democratic strategist. “He’s placed his personal credibility on the line to pass these.”
Yet the campaign has already demonstrated the governor’s power: There is no organized opposition, save for occasional verbal broadsides from state Treasurer Phil Angelides and a small group of opponents. Schwarzenegger advisors say passage of the measures would affirm his power to circumvent the Democrats who control the Legislature and, if they resist his will, put his proposals to a popular vote.
“His whole governorship is predicated on the support of the people, and I think that this is a test,” Schwarzenegger media advisor Don Sipple said.
Proposition 57 would authorize up to $15 billion in bonds to balance the state budget. The governor describes it as strictly consolidation of old debt, but it includes several billion dollars in new borrowing that would help him and the Legislature avert spending cuts or higher taxes. Proposition 58 would require passage of a balanced budget, restrict borrowing to cover future deficits and mandate a rainy-day reserve.
Critics of the bond proposal say the debt payments, lasting up to 14 years, would squander taxpayer money needed for schools and other public services. Depending on their ideology, they call instead for spending cuts, tax hikes or a mix of both. But no one has bought television advertising -- crucial to any statewide campaign -- to challenge Schwarzenegger’s.
In the Republican primaries, the governor is backing Bill Jones for U.S. Senate, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach for reelection and Assemblyman John Campbell of Irvine for a state Senate seat.
In his fiercely contested race against Assemblyman Ken Maddox of Garden Grove, Campbell has struck each of the season’s main themes. Campbell campaigns as “Schwarzenegger’s go-to guy in Sacramento,” calls himself “tough on illegal immigration” and tells voters that he has “fought hard against the expansion of gay rights.”
In the U.S. Senate race, Howard Kaloogian has cast himself as the staunchest foe of gay marriage and illegal immigration. In San Francisco and Sacramento on Saturday, he promoted his effort to recall state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, a Democrat, on the grounds that he had not moved swiftly enough to block San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom from granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
His rival Toni Casey, a former Los Altos Hills mayor, has also taken a stand on same-sex marriage, but one more in line with her bid to woo moderates: Friday she announced her opposition to Bush’s proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.
Front-runner Jones has tried to steer clear of the issue. At stops Saturday in Santa Barbara and Pismo Beach, his main topic was offshore oil drilling.
In other GOP primaries, candidates have primarily used gay marriage -- like illegal immigration -- to mobilize the party’s conservative base.
In a Christian radio ad, GOP Assembly candidate Jim Gibson of Oceanside vows that he will “work to protect the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.”
In a Fresno television spot, GOP Assembly candidate Chris Mathys tells voters: “You can count on me to help President Bush to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages.” And in a suburban Sacramento congressional race, state Sen. Rico Oller of San Andreas touts a “Defender of Marriage” award that he won from fellow lawmakers.
The only statewide Democratic candidate forced to grapple with gay marriage is Barbara Boxer, the incumbent in the U.S. Senate race, but she has no primary opponent. Boxer’s criticism of the San Francisco mayor’s approval of same-sex marriages has rankled Democratic supporters.
On immigration, one of the most contentious feuds is in the Sacramento area congressional race. Responding to a rival’s attack, former GOP gubernatorial hopeful Dan Lungren is running a radio ad with a testimonial from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who says the former congressman and California attorney general voted for a bill that “beefed up border security.”
In Ventura County, Republican Assembly candidate Mike Robinson accused foe Audra Strickland of supporting driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.
Strickland, who denies the charge, responded with a radio ad saying Robinson failed to vote for a 1994 ballot measure that sought to keep illegal immigrants from receiving public education and other government services -- a charge he denies.
Times staff writers Joe Mathews and Jean O. Pasco contributed to this report.