Sunday, October 15, 2006

Terminator Party: Governor Schwarzenegger and California GOP Defy National Trends

Today's lead article of the Los Angeles Times' state voter guide argues that the Democratic Party's longtime edge in state politics is receding this election year, as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the California Republican Party make inroads with moderate voters:

By political tradition, California forges its own way. It has affirmed its place in the forefront of reliably Democratic states even as the nation has kept Republicans firmly in control of Congress and the White House.

So now that the national mood has shifted amid the troubles in Iraq, giving Democrats a shot at seizing Congress, it is oddly fitting that 2006 is shaping up as a strong year for Republicans in California.

The Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is heavily favored for reelection Nov. 7 over his Democratic challenger, state Treasurer Phil Angelides. Several other Republicans seeking statewide office are mounting surprisingly competitive races against Democratic rivals, though the outcomes are far from sure. And billions of dollars in bonds and taxes on the ballot face tough prospects, thanks largely to Republican voters' aversion to government growth.

With its nearly 16 million voters spread across more than 163,000 square miles, California is so vast that it creates an election climate of its own. This year, its dominating force is Schwarzenegger, whose comeback from his political collapse last year is driving a potential Republican resurgence in California — or at least what would pass for one in a state so effectively Democratic.

Further isolating California from the national swing toward Democrats is the absence of serious competition in the state's 53 congressional races, but for two U.S. House districts where the reelection of Republicans is somewhat uncertain.

By drawing the state's congressional map to protect incumbents of both major parties, the Legislature has made California immune from "the great churning dissatisfaction with the Republicans on a national level," said Tony Quinn, co-editor of California Target Book, a nonpartisan election guide. "We might as well be out in the Pacific Ocean someplace"....

As for Schwarzenegger, he has refashioned his political image in a way that separates him more than ever from the social conservatives who lead the national Republican Party. A supporter of gay rights, gun control and legal abortion, he has doggedly chased after support from Democrats and independents this year, as must any California Republican running statewide. (Republicans make up 34% of California voters, Democrats 43%. Another 23% have shunned the major parties but still tend to favor Democrats.)

For the most part, Schwarzenegger has done so by striking deals with Democrats who control the Legislature, signing bills he had long resisted. One of them cuts prescription drug costs. Another caps greenhouse gas emissions to put California in the vanguard of the fight to stop global warming....

In his reelection ads, Schwarzenegger stresses such typically Democratic issues as schools, healthcare and the environment, along with the touchstone Republican topics of crime and taxes. At the same time, he has joined Democrats in pushing for $37 billion in bonds for vast public construction projects.

The overall mix has enabled Schwarzenegger to cast himself as a centrist in his battle against Angelides, who positioned himself as a liberal in the Democratic primary with a showcase proposal to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy.
Other recent articles have noted that Angelides is seen as a drag on the statewide ticket by Democratic Party leaders. Normally slam-dunk contests for the Democrats -- such as insurance commissioner and lieutenant governor -- are now trending tighter than usual.

I've been telling my students for weeks now that Schwarzenegger was a shoe-in for reelection. Angelides can't even claim to have a Dukakis-type surge (as when Massachusetts Governor held a periodic lead over George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election), although he does come across as a bland technocrat in the Dukakis mold.

Nationally, things remain grim for the GOP's chances in the congressional elections. Yet,
as this New York Times story indicates, GOP candidates are enjoying the campaign benefits of an extremely commited Republican voter base which may have enough volunteers pounding the pavement on election day -- mobilizing voters -- to make a successful difference in some tight races.

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