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A Look at California — Post-Recall

This is the first in a three-part series examining the future of California politics. This week, Down on the Farm looks at the recall election’s impact on the Golden State.

Depending on your point of view, California’s political revolution either began in earnest Monday or just ended. [IMGCAP(1)]

With the swearing-in of new Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), California’s political climate is about to change. The question is whether the aftershocks of Schwarzenegger’s victory in last month’s recall election will continue to be felt and lead to a full-scale political shakeup, or whether the dreary reality of the state’s fiscal crisis will dull the excitement and potential surrounding Schwarzenegger — his celebrity notwithstanding.

Clearly, California Republicans are excited about Schwarzenegger’s ability to lead them to the promised land after five-plus years in the political wilderness. Many Republicans see Schwarzenegger’s victory as a sign that they can compete once again in statewide elections. The new governor is expected to help rebuild the party — even if his role is more symbolic at first.

“I think he’s preoccupied, quite honestly,” cautioned Ken Khachigian, a former top adviser to Ronald Reagan who is still active in California politics.

Despite Schwarzenegger’s star power, and beyond whatever reforms he brings to state government, the partisan dynamics in the state have not yet changed dramatically. President Bush must still be considered the underdog when it comes to carrying the Golden State’s coveted 55 electoral votes in 2004. And the GOP is still struggling to find a marquee candidate to take on Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) next year, even though many Republicans believe she could be vulnerable.

Even if those races are lost causes, Dan Schnur, a top GOP consultant in California, believes Schwarzenegger’s presence at the top of the state government gives Republicans an opportunity to concentrate on recruiting good, young talent for the future instead of wringing their hands over difficult statewide elections in the near-term.

“One of the hidden benefits of Schwarzenegger’s election is that it buys time for California Republicans to develop our bench,” Schnur said.

The GOP was so devastated in the 1998 and 2002 state elections (not to mention the past three presidential races), Schnur said, that the party has been left with a few veteran leaders, like former Govs. George Deukmejian (R) and Pete Wilson (R), and several promising younger officeholders, but no one at the interim level immediately ready for prime time.

“We’ve missed a whole generation of Republican leaders,” Schnur said. “We’ve got a couple of decorated generals in Wilson and Deukmejian. And we’ve got a lot of promising soldiers. But we lost a lot of good people in the war of 1998. Until Arnold came along, California Republicans were a little bit like the French after World War II.”

One of the big questions surrounding Schwarzenegger’s new administration is whether he is prepared to put his political might behind the reform agenda he endorsed during his recent campaign. Part of that agenda included support for an initiative to take the responsibility for Congressional and legislative redistricting away from the Legislature and put it in the hands of a panel of judges.

Such a change, more than anything else, could affect the makeup of California’s 53-Member House delegation during the next few election cycles.

“Creating a fair system is so important to the political process,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (R), one of the prime movers behind the redistricting measure. “It’s probably the best opportunity for change in 50 years.”

Ted Costa, the political gadfly who started a successful term-limits initiative for state legislators a few years back and helped engineer the recall of ex-Gov. Gray Davis (D), is collecting signatures for a ballot question on redistricting that could come before voters in November 2004. (Costa is also considering promoting a measure calling for public financing of California’s Congressional campaigns.)

In the last round of redistricting, leaders of both parties in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., essentially agreed to make the state’s Congressional districts as incumbent-friendly as possible, and today, no more than a handful of California’s districts are even remotely competitive between the parties. Democrats currently hold a 33-20 edge.

State legislative leaders said they wanted to make life easier for incumbents, to save them the inconvenience of having to fly from California to Washington every single weekend. But beneath the surface, Republicans wanted to guarantee that they hold a certain number of seats, even if it means sacrificing a few potential tossup districts that they might win. And some white Democratic incumbents were afraid of having too many Latino voters placed in their districts.

“Everyone likes their safe little district and they’re not interested in making changes,” Nunes said.

The contours of the state’s Congressional boundaries is one reason why there are so few competitive House elections in California these days. But there are other factors at work, including the sheer distance between California and Washington. Many top-flight politicians simply don’t want to make the regular trip — especially when California’s 40 state Senate districts are bigger than Congressional districts, and when most county boards of supervisors have only five members. In both the Legislature and at the county level, gaining power and influence is considerably easier than on Capitol Hill.

“A state Senate district is bigger than a Congressional district, and you have hands-on power over an $80 billion budget, and you’re not one of 435,” said a longtime observer of California politics. “Talk about pork barrel.”

But with term limits now in full effect in the Legislature, limiting state Senators to eight years in Sacramento and members of the Assembly to six, Congressional seats may start looking more appealing to ambitious politicians. It is why, for example, termed-out state Sen. Bruce McPherson (R) is taking a look at challenging Rep. Sam Farr (D) next year in a relatively safe Democratic district along the California coast.

The likelier scenario is that McPherson, like other state Senators who once served in the Assembly and still have service time left there, will wind up trying to get his old job back. These officials have earned the nickname “Space Cowboys,” after the movie about an aging team of astronauts.

But several political observers say the newfound appeal of Congressional races could even prompt some Democratic politicians to quietly support the redistricting initiative, in an effort to maximize their own career options.

“All of a sudden, a lot of guys who really don’t have races between now and 2012 would be facing tough fights as soon as 2006,” said Larry Sheingold, a Sacramento-based Democratic consultant.

But figuring out who might run for Congress, where they will do it and when is, like so many other things in politics, a question of timing.

Nunes said he is convinced that Congressional redistricting will finally be taken out of the hands of partisan politicians — the only question in his mind is whether it will happen before the next census and whether fairer lines will be drawn sooner rather than later.

“I think the stars are aligned for this to happen,” he said.

Next week: California Republicans to watch.

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