Money Loses Big in California

Lavish spending backfires, as the tried-and-true win in lineup for governor's race.

California, known for its bold and sometimes wacky gifts to the world, has gone retro in politics.

It could be the next big thing.

Striking a blow for incrementalism, relative campaign frugality, and the established order, Californians have sent two consummate insiders, each representative of their party's traditional values, to the big show in November.

Attorney General Dan Lungren, who had no serious competition for the Republican nomination, will face Democrat Gray Davis, a cautious career politician who at one point in the campaign boasted: "I'm a big believer in incremental change." Mr. Davis won handily despite spending less than a third of opponent Al Checchi's eye-popping $35 million and about half of what Congresswoman Jane Harman drew from her family bank account.

California's vote should encourage incumbents and insiders across the land in a year when 37 governors, 46 state legislatures, all of the House of Representatives, and a third of the US Senate will be elected. Exit polls here showed voters in an upbeat mood about the economy and their own financial prospects. "This is a don't-rock-the-boat economy," says Sherry Bebich Jeffe, a political scientist at Claremont Graduate University in southern California. "Incumbents and longtime pols ought to feel pretty good."

Another lesson embedded in California's vote concerns money, say political analysts.

In a nutshell, it is this: While it takes gobs of money to compete in American politics in 1998, particularly in California's vast television-reliant market, dollars aren't decisive. In fact, lavish expenditures can backfire if used in ways voters regard as unfair.

Some analysts say the California outcome could slow the trend toward more wealthy, self-funded candidacies this decade.

A voter reluctance for dramatic change in California went beyond the candidates. A ballot initiative that would have significantly reduced the power of organized labor was defeated, hobbling a nascent Republican-backed movement to enact similar limits in other states and in Congress. The initiative would have required unions to get a member's yearly approval before spending his or her dues on political activities. Critics said the measure would unfairly tilt the playing field in favor of corporations. Labor mounted a $20 million opposition campaign, turning the tables on a measure that had been ahead in the polls in May.

The one area where voters embraced change was the state's massive bilingual-education program. But analysts considered that a strategic vote, in keeping with opinion surveys that have consistently shown voter dissatisfaction with education (see story, left). A separate education measure requiring schools to spend no more than 5 percent on administrative costs failed.

The cost of Mr. Checchi's campaign made headlines throughout the race. He was on television early, advocating an agenda of change that gained him recognition and initial support. But when Harman jumped into the race late and began spending lavishly to establish a statewide identity, Checchi unleashed a barrage of negative television advertising.

Those ads hit their intended target, dragging Harman down in the polls, a position from which she never fully recovered. But they also sealed Checchi's fate. His disapproval ratings rose and his voter support essentially topped out.

The Davis campaign was in the enviable position of watching an opponent's tactic backfire so badly, partly because the dollars were so big, that he was the only one left standing. Davis pollster Paul Maslin sums up what happened this way: "Checchi crossed the line. People don't mind you spending lots of money. But when you spend it lambasting your opponent, it's seen as unfair."

The limits of money and voters' wariness of outsiders were also evident in Republican Matt Fong's victory over Darrell Issa in the US Senate primary. Mr. Fong, the state treasurer, spent most of the race behind in the polls. And he was outspent nearly 10 to 1 by Mr. Issa, a wealthy businessman with no political experience. But in the end, Issa's image as a somewhat brash outsider wasn't a winning one. Though he didn't go negative, some analysts concluded that Checchi so soured voters on an "outsider" candidate that it rubbed off on Issa. Fong will face incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer in the fall.

Another familiar face won the mayor's seat outright in the Bay Area city of Oakland. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., a former California governor and three-time presidential candidate, eclipsed 10 candidates to avoid a runoff.

If this week's California vote was a reaffirmation of the tried and true, the process was anything but. It was the state's first "blanket" primary, where voters are free to vote for any candidate, regardless of party affiliation.

Fong appears to have benefited from a substantial crossover vote from moderate Democrats, apparently unhappy with Senator Boxer's liberal record. While some critics were concerned about voters straying across party lines to cause mischief, analysts saw no evidence of that.

One of the dynamic forces in California politics is the Latino vote. New laws and an anti-immigrant climate in recent years have spurred substantial increases in Latinos seeking US citizenship. That, coupled with aggressive voter-registration drives, has increased Latinos' clout at the polls. Early exit polls indicated Latinos were about 12 percent of the voters this week, an increase over the single-digit share they've had in most recent elections.

The stakes in California in November are huge. Each party wants to control the state's top office when redistricting begins following the 2000 census. Democrats outnumber Republicans as registered voters about 46 percent to 36 percent. But Republicans have managed to hold the governorship for the past 16 years. One challenge for Democrats will be to unite behind Davis. One of the state's most popular politicians, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, campaigned for Davis's opponent, Harman.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.