Recall Returns GOP to Center

By Lawrence Molton

Published August 15, 2003, issue of August 15, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

While the national media has been having a field day with the recall of Governor Gray Davis, we here in California have a perspective on the October 7 vote that has less to do with the big screen and more to do with the ballot box.

What to pundits in the East appears to be some kind of illegitimate Republican plot or right-wing coup is nothing of the sort. The recall is actually a popular feature of California democracy, and in this case was a populist assault on a truly unpopular governor that has morphed into an opportunity for centrist Republicans to return to power in the nation’s most populous state — a shift that just might affect the national Republican Party.

The national Democratic Party has used the recall to fire up the party base and motivate activists for the 2004 presidential election. The chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Terry McAuliffe, announced recently that Republicans are trying to steal power illegally, comparing the effort to the Republican theft in Florida of the 2000 presidential election. And Connecticut senator and 2004 presidential hopeful Joseph Lieberman, campaigning in Silicon Valley in July, told Democrats that the recall was an example of “extra-constitutional, extra-governmental steps that Republicans seem to be willing to take” to nullify the effect of an election.

In fact, the recall process has been part of California’s Constitution for nearly a hundred years. While much rarer than initiatives, recall was used during the 1990s to successfully remove two Republican members of the State Assembly.

McAuliffe and Lieberman would do well to recall that the original “Recall Gray Davis” campaign — started in February as a populist conservative effort by Ted Costa, the longtime head of an anti-tax group — got no help at all from the Republican Party or its traditional supporters in big business or the religious right.

With no money to speak of, it gathered 100,000 signatures through the Internet and talk radio. But the state Republican Party scrupulously avoided giving it any financial or personnel support, and the leaders of the Republican minority in the Legislature refused to support it.

Most GOP political professionals opposed the recall, fearing that it would destroy GOP hopes to win the open governorship in 2006. They reasoned that a new Democratic governor, lacking Davis’s baggage and benefiting from an expected economic upturn, might easily be re-elected. The Bush White House also stayed aloof, hoping to contrast the president with a wildly unpopular Davis during the 2004 campaign.

In fact, the recall effort was dead in the water until the immensely wealthy Republican Rep. Darrell Issa contributed money in May to fund the necessary signature gathering. In a testament to the bipartisan nature of Davis’s unpopularity, fully 35% of the 1.3 million valid signatures gathered came from Democrats.

Once it qualified, the recall created a huge political vacuum. And despite McAuliffe’s dire prediction of a hostile right-wing takeover of California, it is conservative Republicans who stand to lose most in the recall election.

For the past five years, the state Republican Party has been completely dominated by its most conservative factions. The state’s closed primary, combined with gerrymandered redistricting in 2001, has guaranteed very conservative nominees who are unbeatable come November.

The right-leaning politicians stand in marked contrast to the California electorate, which is liberal on social issues while moderately conservative on crime, tax and defense issues. As but one example, the well-respected California Poll showed in July that about half of California Republican voters support making abortion more difficult to obtain, a result consistent with other polls during the last decade. Yet 80% to 90% of the GOP legislative caucus is pro-life, as are most statewide nominees.

Exposed to the general electorate — only 26% of whom, by the way, want tougher abortion laws — in the recall’s direct-voting system, conservative Republicans are unlikely to garner substantial support in a statewide election. Even the solidly conservative Issa bowed out of the race to succeed Davis, should the governor be unseated, despite the congressman’s bankrolling of the recall effort. Fellow conservative Republicans Bill Simon and Tom McClintock have remained in the race so far, but face daunting odds in the October 7 vote.

Freed from the political constraints of a party primary, the two centrist Republicans on the ballot — Arnold Schwarzenegger and Peter Ueberroth — are staking out positions in support of abortion rights, gay rights, qualified gun control and environmental regulations. This has not gone unnoticed by the religious right. The day after Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy, one major California political figure here, Reverend Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, said that Arnold would be a worse governor than Davis — no small criticism, given the degree of statewide dissatisfaction with the latter’s performance on the job.

The religious right and other conservative elements may disparage centrist Republicans, but California voters just might embrace them. If the more moderate factions of the party do indeed return to power in the Golden State, the ramifications will be felt nationwide. Besides giving the national Republican Party a lift, it is likely to boost the future chances of other centrist Republicans, such as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice — who is reportedly considering a return to California to run for governor, perhaps in 2006.

From there, well, who knows. But the recall effort has undoubtedly presented California Republicans with a chance to return to the national stage they once occupied for so long.

Lawrence Molton is an attorney and Republican political consultant based in Northern California.

Find us on Facebook!
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.