The exurbs aren't all Republican.

by John B. Judis | November 21, 2005

San Ramon, California If California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had support anywhere for his initiatives, it would have been in a place like this one. A town of 50,000 on the edge of suburban Contra Costa County, San Ramon is represented in Congress by Republican Richard Pombo and is home to the Chevron Corporation. But, as Schwarzenegger's black van approached the Hop Yard American Ale House, where he was scheduled to appear on the last day of the campaign, hundreds of demonstrators thronged the entrance shouting, "Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Schwarzenegger's got to go!" They easily drowned out the small clutch of supporters holding signs reading go for it arnold. Schwarzenegger entered through the back door of the restaurant and went from table to table promising to "make the broken system whole" and to achieve "reform" and "change." "I say to the people, `Give change a chance,'" he declared to a group of diners, as if he were speaking to an audience of thousands. He was going through the motions--an aging actor in summer stock playing the final night of State Fair. But the stage that day in San Ramon, and in California the next day, belonged to the governor's boisterous opponents, as all four of the initiatives he had championed went down in defeat. Of course, California has not been particularly hospitable to its governors. Schwarzenegger's Democratic predecessor, Gray Davis, was recalled after five years in office, and his Republican predecessor, Pete Wilson, was deeply unpopular during his second term (see "Failed State," September 5). But Schwarzenegger has hit bottom far more quickly than either Davis or Wilson. His fall was due not merely to the state's intractable fiscal problems, but also to gross political miscalculation. Schwarzenegger, elected as a nonpartisan centrist, moved rightward this year. And, when he encountered resistance to his Republican pro-business agenda, he tried to use conservative wedge issues to stir up support in places like San Ramon. This miscalculation about exurban voters, which was also committed in Virginia by Republican gubernatorial contender Jerry Kilgore, may have national implications for the GOP. California is often pictured as the ultimate blue state, but that's not quite accurate. The fastest-growing group of California voters is independents. These voters, who now make up 19 percent of the electorate, can turn an election either way. They are generally centrists who support abortion rights and environmental protection. They want more money spent on education but are leery of big government programs or tax increases. They want corporations to come to the state, but don't want them to dominate the government. Wilson and Davis initially ran as centrists and enjoyed great support among this constituency. So did Schwarzenegger, and, in his first year, he carefully cultivated an image as a nonpartisan friend of labor and business. But, after last November's election, Schwarzenegger careened sharply to the right as he reneged on a commitment made during Davis's administration to reduce nurse- patient ratios in hospitals. When the California Nurses Association fought back, Schwarzenegger boasted about "kicking their butts." Then, he broke a promise he made to the California Teachers Association to restore the funding levels that the union had agreed to reduce in 2004, which brought teachers into the fray. Finally, Schwarzenegger introduced a pensionreform plan for public workers, which, according to the state attorney general, would have denied death benefits to the widows of firefighters and police. Faced with angry protesters, Schwarzenegger decided to take on all the groups at once. Tom Campbell, who took leave as state finance director to work on the initiative campaign, suggests that Schwarzenegger reacted emotionally to the political attacks from the nurses, teachers, and firefighters. "When one side goes for war," Campbell explains, "the other side either girds for war or tries to reach a compromise." Schwarzenegger decided to go to war. He made labor unions the enemy and cast his lot with Sacramento's business lobbies. He championed their proposals for spending limits and attacked "union bosses." He even took aim at Mexican immigrants, comparing the Minutemen vigilantes to private security guards he had hired to watch his kids. And, when the Democrat-controlled legislature didn't comply with his wishes, he turned to initiatives. Schwarzenegger's use of the initiative process this year was flawed. Says Tony Quinn, who worked for Republicans in the state assembly and now edits the California Target Book, an almanac of California politics: "When you are doing initiative politics, you lay out an idea, and you discuss it, and you have academics discuss it. Then you try the legislature. The initiative is the last resort. Schwarzenegger's people made it the first resort. The political operation took control of the policy, and they believe Arnold could sell anything." In addition, the initiatives themselves were poorly drafted, mostly by political partisans. The main initiative, Proposition 76, which was written in incomprehensible business-speak by the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Business Roundtable, would have allowed the governor to cut funding for schools if the budget was in the red. Schwarzenegger's redistricting plan, Proposition 77, which was drafted by the same Republican activist who led Davis's recall, would have required an immediate fix before the next census. And Proposition 74, which made it more difficult for teachers to obtain tenure, seemed to presume that the ills of California's underfunded educational system were due entirely to teachers undeservedly gaining tenure. Schwarzenegger's campaign for the initiatives moved him even further into the hands of business lobbies and the Republican right. To raise money for the campaign--which would prove to be the most costly in California history-- Schwarzenegger mortgaged his legislative agenda to big contributors. For instance, Schwarzenegger got a check for $250,000 from Christy Walton, the widow of Wal-Mart heir John Walton, on the same day he vetoed a bill that would have had the state publicize names of companies whose employees have to rely on California's Medicaid program. To please business, Schwarzenegger endorsed Proposition 75, which required public employee unions to get the written permission of their members to contribute to political campaigns. This anti-union proposition was drawn up by former John Birch Society member Lewis Uhler. As the campaign continued to flounder, Schwarzenegger attempted to duplicate George W. Bush's political strategy in 2004. He focused almost entirely on rural and exurban voters, only permitted supporters into his rallies and "town hall" meetings, and used wedge issues to woo social conservatives. Schwarzenegger, who had brandished his support for abortion rights two years before, endorsed Proposition 73, which required minors to notify their parents before seeking an abortion. The California Republican Party hired Gary Marx, who had mobilized evangelicals for Bush, to get these voters to support Schwarzenegger's initiatives as well as the religious right-sponsored Proposition 73. But, in the exurbs, opposition to abortion and union bosses didn't translate into support for Proposition 76, Schwarzenegger's anti-spending initiative. In traditionally Republican Riverside and Fresno counties, the antiabortion initiative won by about 20 percent, but Proposition 76, seen as a threat to the state's schools, lost by about 10 percent. Interestingly, the same pattern appeared in the Virginia gubernatorial election. Republicans had previously put great stock in fast-growing exurban areas like Loudon County in Northern Virginia. But Loudon County, which went for Bush in 2004, backed Democrat Tim Kaine over Kilgore by 5 percent, suggesting that voters are more interested in Kaine's proposals for education and transportation than in Kilgore's defense of the death penalty or promises to deport illegal immigrants. In 2004, Republicans were able to win on an agenda of conservative social issues paired with Bush's reputation as a field marshal in the war on terrorism. But, these days, Bush looks like less of a leader, and the results in California and Virginia suggest the limits of a Republican political strategy that focuses on right-wing issues like abortion and immigration rather than on universal ones like education and health care. If Schwarzenegger (not to mention the rest of his party) fails to realize that governing from the right is no longer an option, it'll be "hasta la vista" come next November.

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