Skip to content

Recall Sucking Oxygen From Cal. Senate Race

By Josh Kurtz

A meeting this weekend of 400 California Republican moderates was supposed to be a showcase for the party’s potential 2004 Senate contenders, culminating in a straw poll to bless a favorite.

Instead, the confab in the hills above Santa Barbara is likely to be dominated by talk of the effort to recall California Gov. Gray Davis (D).

Three potential Senate candidates are still scheduled to address the Brooks Firestone Republican Weekend, an annual event organized by Firestone, a former state Assemblyman and wealthy GOP power broker. But the straw poll has been scotched.

And now, two conservative politicians closely associated with the recall drive — Rep. Darrell Issa (R) and businessman Bill Simon, the GOP’s gubernatorial nominee in 2002 — have been granted speaking slots. While hardly the favorites of party moderates, both are considered likely candidates for governor if a recall election winds up on the ballot.

“We don’t exclude anybody who wants to talk to our people,” said Brandon Gesicki, a California GOP consultant who works with Firestone.

But the urgency of the discussion about the recall highlights a dilemma for Golden State and national Republicans as they seek a strong challenger to two-term Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) next year: The recall could wind up drowning the Senate race out completely.

“The recall’s affecting everything in California politics,” said Dan Schnur, a Sacramento-based GOP strategist who is advising one potential Senate candidate, Rep. George Radanovich (R-Calif.). “There’s no reason the Senate race should be an exception.”

Spreading like a wild fire into previously uninhabited territory, the recall is now considered to have a 50-50 chance of winding up on the statewide ballot after once being dismissed in political precincts as a hopeless cause.

If organizers can present the California secretary of state’s office with 900,000 valid signatures of registered voters by mid-July, a recall election would likely be on the ballot this November. If they come up with the valid signatures by early September, the vote would probably coincide with state primaries in March 2004.

Either way, the recall has gotten a huge financial boost (roughly $700,000) in recent weeks from Issa, who got rich from a car alarm business before entering politics. Issa plans to run for governor if there is a recall election, and he is paying signature collectors with the hope of forcing a vote this November.

Even if the recall effort ultimately fails, it is proving far more compelling so far than the prospect of a Senate race between Boxer and any of the five little-known Republicans who are thinking of entering the contest: Radanovich, who is perhaps a month away from a final decision; former Los Altos Hills Mayor Toni Casey, who has already announced her candidacy; Assemblyman Abel Maldonado, who is considered far more likely to run for state Senate; U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, who is resigning June 30 and is almost certain to run; and Los Angeles attorney Gary Mendoza, the party’s unsuccessful nominee for state insurance commissioner in 2002, who told Roll Call he will make up his mind about a Senate bid in three or four weeks.

“The Senate candidate will not receive any attention while the recall is on — that much is a given,” said one Sacramento-based GOP operative. “It could also affect fundraising.”

That’s not insignificant for a race where the Republican nominee will probably need $20 million to be competitive.

Beyond the issue of whether California voters should fire their unpopular governor less than a year after he began his second term, the recall presents several intriguing subplots — some of them tangentially related to the 2004 Senate race. If a recall makes it to the ballot, voters will be asked whether they want to remove Davis from office and, if so, who from among a potentially wide open field of candidates should replace him. Among the questions that may need answering before California can focus on the 2004 Senate election:

• Can the forces pushing for the recall — some affiliated with Issa, some with Simon, and others with an anti-tax organization — stay unified?

• Will the Federal Election Commission rule that Issa is violating campaign finance law by soliciting contributions greater than $2,000 for the recall effort? While an FEC ruling on Issa may be months away, the commission could rule next month on a matter involving Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and his ability to raise money for a statewide referendum in Arizona, and it could provide a guideline for California.

• Can Davis foes — principally, but not exclusively, Republicans — unify around a single gubernatorial candidate? Does Issa have a leg up because of his financial support for the recall, or would he get nudged aside by a better-known Republican, such as movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger?

• If Issa doesn’t wind up the consensus GOP choice in a recall election, can he at least parlay the Republicans’ presumed gratitude into a viable last-minute Senate run?

• Will former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a moderate who lost the GOP gubernatorial nomination to Simon last year, run in the recall election as an independent?

• Will the Democratic establishment, whose official position is to oppose the recall and stick with Davis, be able to persuade well-known Democrats to stay out of the recall race? Will any of the handful of ambitious Democrats holding lower statewide offices jump into the recall election? Or will the Democrats turn to an elder statesman who can unify the party — like Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) — to run in the recall?

• If Feinstein is elected governor, who would she appoint to fill her Senate seat (rumor has Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante as the likeliest choice)? How soon would a special election have to be held to fill the remainder of her Senate term? Could California see two Senate elections taking place simultaneously in 2004, as it did in 1992, when Boxer and Feinstein were first elected?

“If the recall makes it to the ballot, it’ll be the closest thing to political anarchy any of us have seen in our lifetime,” Schnur predicted.

But anarchy or not, a Senate race of sorts is quietly under way. Casey, Radanovich and Maldonado are all scheduled to speak at the Firestone conference this weekend. Mendoza said he would try to make it.

Marin is not doing any campaigning or signing up a political team until she leaves office at the end of the month, in order not to run afoul of the Hatch Act. But she has managed to spend plenty of time in the Golden State recently — as a commencement speaker, moderating a two-day conference on entrepreneurship in San Francisco this week, and speaking at a dinner in Los Angeles on Tuesday night to mark the 25th anniversary of Proposition 13, the statewide anti-tax measure.

Dan Allen, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the recall fight helps the GOP’s recruiting effort, because it shows how weak Davis, the leader of the otherwise dominant Democratic Party, is, and that can only help Republican candidates.

“From our standpoint, the recall is highlighting the dysfunctionality of the Democratic Party out there,” Allen said. “It has garnered a lot of attention, but there are still a lot of people looking seriously at the [Senate] race, and there is a dialogue going on with them.”

But Bob Mulholland, a consultant for the California Democratic Party, called Boxer a proven votegetter who will be tough for any Republican to defeat, and called the recall “irrelevant” to the Senate election.

Not everyone agrees, however: Consultants in both parties say that the outcome of a recall election — whether it’s a decisive victory for one party or very close — could create a variety of scenarios for the Senate race.

Meanwhile, there is a sense among California Republicans that a small Senate primary field will help the party against Boxer, because the GOP nominee will not have to squander precious resources in an intraparty fight. While no one is playing kingmaker yet, Marin — at this stage, anyway — is the likeliest to benefit from such sentiment.

Fittingly, Mulholland, who has shared the party’s opposition research on Issa with the media in recent weeks, is putting out the word that Marin, a former mayor and city councilwoman in Huntington Park, outside Los Angeles, was censured by her colleagues when she was on the council. That is true: According to a July 2000 Los Angeles Times article, Marin was censured by her council colleagues on a 3-2 vote for being abusive to the mayor and rude to members of the public during a council hearing.

Marin dismissed the action as “nonsense” at the time.

Recent Stories

NTSB says bad sensor, poor response worsened East Palestine wreck

Capitol Ink | Supreme sausage

Peters pitches AI legislation as model for private sector

Capitol Lens | Show chopper

After a ‘rough’ start, Sen. Fetterman opens up about his mental health journey

Supreme Court enters crunch time for term loaded with big issues