The Rhyme of History in California

Steven Hayward

March 1, 2002

Mark Twain is credited with the remark that history doesn’t repeat itself—but it rhymes. For Republicans in California, the rhyme of history on Tuesday was so harmonious that they could be forgiven for thinking history is about to repeat itself exactly.

Consider the scene. California Republicans, coming off several dismal election cycles, were looking for a strong candidate to field against a vulnerable Democratic incumbent governor who had dealt weakly with several crises in the state. So the party establishment turned to a moderate big city mayor, who polls showed would run the strongest race for the statehouse. Meanwhile, an inexperienced conservative upstart emerged as a credible candidate within the GOP, and the Democratic governor got the idea into his head that he would rather run against the "right-wing" upstart than the big city Republican mayor. So the Democratic governor played around behind enemy lines in the Republican primary, attacking the mayor and boosting the upstart to a win in the GOP primary.

But this story isn’t about this week. It’s about 1966, when Governor Pat Brown decided to attack San Francisco’s Republican Mayor George Christopher before the Republican primary (polls said Christopher would run the strongest race for governor) because Brown decided he’d rather run against Ronald Reagan instead. He got his wish.


California Governor Gray Davis followed the Pat Brown script almost to the letter in recent weeks, launching a barrage of attacks against former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan in hopes that businessman Bill Simon, the supposedly weaker candidate, would overtake him. Just like Pat Brown in 1966, Davis has got his wish. Beware what you wish for, as the old saying goes. There is another old maxim that Davis ignored, which is that you should never mess around in the other party’s primary.

Simon is showing growing strength. While he is not Ronald Reagan on the stump (who is?), he shares many of Reagan’s appealing characteristics. Simon has Reagan’s same easy-going sincerity and a mild, unthreatening demeanor. He is innately likeable on sight, which in a media-dependent state like California will translate into charisma. He has done his homework on California issues, and is ready for a serious run.

California’s electorate is lopsidedly Democratic these days—just as it was in 1966. Reagan won with the votes of more than 2 million Democrats who were disaffected with Gov. Pat Brown’s handling of the Watts Riots, the state budget, and student protests state college campuses. Gov. Davis has an even more abysmal record, first for fumbling the state’s electricity crisis, and then for turning a $12 billion state surplus into a $17 billion deficit within one year. Many Democratic voters are ready to defect to a credible alternative. The signs of a potential mass defection are there. On election day the most popular radio talk show in California’s central valley fielded calls for three hours from Democratic voters, almost every one of whom said they would vote for anyone but Davis, and many of whom said they just like Simon, probably for all of the reasons mentioned above. Early polls show Simon running neck and neck with Davis.

Davis will no doubt attack Simon’s lack of government experience, but this may not prove very effective. Reagan’s substantive appeal in 1966 was that he was a citizen-politician, and the record of "experienced" politicians then and now is not compelling. Simon can make the same appeal. (It is worth noting that California voters this week also convincingly rejected a ballot measure to relax term limits, a sign that the dislike of the political class remains strongly rooted.)

There is one big difference between 1966 and today, however: the politics of abortion. Attacks against Simon, who is a pro-life Catholic, are certain to come heavy and hard from California Democrats, who are obsessed with abortion. But Davis is also putatively a Catholic, and at some point it is going to be awkward for Davis to explain why he dissents from his own church’s teaching about the issue. Any hint of anti-Catholicism in the criticism of Simon is likely to backfire with Latino voters, a key Democratic voting block.

California has a habit of re-electing its governors, even when they are in trouble. Pat Brown is the exception that proves the rule; Reagan beat Brown when Brown sought a third term. A first-term governor hasn’t lost in California for 60 years. And Davis has a huge campaign war chest. But he has been around a long time in California politics, and is looking mighty stale. California, which was once given up as a lost cause by Republicans, now looks to be the hottest race of the year.

Steven Hayward is senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University.