Recall Returns GOP to Center

By Lawrence Molton

Published August 15, 2003, issue of August 15, 2003.
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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.

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