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April 11, 2013
Guest Opinion: GOP may need a wild card to unseat Brown

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(April 11 -- By Bill Whalen, Special to The Bee)

Jerry Brown turned 75 last weekend, a milestone that didn't go unnoticed by Abel Maldonado - the former lieutenant governor, one of several Republicans who would like to take up residence in the Horseshoe in 2015. He sent his rival birthday greetings via Facebook.

That was two days after a Maldonado adviser suggested a less amicable approach to a matter of longevity. "People just think Jerry Brown is a lifelong governor," said Republican ad man Fred Davis. "They've known him since they were kids, and he dated Linda Ronstadt. He's elderly."

Whoa.

Plenty of adjectives apply to the man who became California's oldest governor two years ago - "enigmatic" and "oracular" come to mind, as do "unorthodox" and "contrarian."

But "elderly"? Certainly not in the political sense, given that Brown shows no signs of feebleness in body, mind or soul of an ambitious agenda. Besides, if age and familiarity repulsed California voters, how do you explain a seemingly permanent ruling class headed by Dianne Feinstein (she turns 80 this summer), Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi (aged 72 and 73, respectively).

The challenge for Maldonado, should he run, isn't reminding voters that Edmund Gerald Brown Jr. was born on the first Thursday in April some 75 years ago. Rather, it's figuring a way around what happened the day before the future governor entered the world: the invention of Teflon, which occurred by accident in a New Jersey laboratory on April 6, 1938. If Ronald Reagan (age 73, at the time of his re-election in 1984) was America's first "Teflon president," Brown has the look and feel of a Teflon governor in that Republicans and other rivals will find it difficult to make charges of inaction or ineptness stick to him come voting time next year.

The good news for Republicans in trying to build a case against the governor's re-election: Brown just gave them the equation to solve. It's this boast from the man himself in a recent Financial Times profile: "We cut pensions, the equivalent of Social Security, we cut health care, child care ... we had a tax (ballot) and everyone said, that's not going to pass - and it passes! We're getting things done. We're building the foundation for a renewed California." Punch holes in that balloon of a Golden State on the rise and maybe Republicans can make a competitive go of it.

Now, the bad news.

If spouses supposedly suffer an itch to stray every seven years, California's electorate is the opposite in its fidelity: every eight years, without fail, an incumbent governor gets his ticket punched. The trend dates back to 1946, when Earl Warren won a second term. It's repeated every eight years since, with 2014 looming as the latest installment. This isn't news to Jerry Brown, as his re-election in 1978 (he won by a shade under 20 percentage points) is part of the string that includes his father Pat (he defeated Richard Nixon by 5 points, back in 1962) and his sister Kathleen (as the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 1994, she lost to Pete Wilson by 14.5 points).

Second, consider what it actually takes to kick a first-term California governor to the curb - and yes, I consider Brown's a first term, albeit a second one. The last first-term governor in this state to go down to defeat - Culbert Olson, the loser to Earl Warren in 1942 - was the oddest of odd ducks: California's first Democratic governor in over four decades, a Mormon turned atheist who refused to say "so help me God" when taking his oath of office (because, he said, "God couldn't help me at all, and ... there isn't any such person").

Gray Davis, the last incumbent governor to be shown the door, wasn't an odd duck. He was, however, a victim of odd circumstances. Before the recall in October 2003, there was an underwhelming re-election win (Davis, elected in a 20 percentage point landslide in 1998, defeated political novice Bill Simon by less than five percentage points four years later). Before that: a budget deficit that nearly doubled in Davis' fourth year in office, preceded by rolling blackouts and the dot-com bubble's burst. Add it up and voters had three years to gripe about Davis before Arnold Schwarzenegger showed up.

With only one-half that time until next year's general election, the GOP's best hope is the unexpected - for example, the Watts riots in August 1965, followed a few months later by student unrest in Berkeley that worked to Ronald Reagan's benefit the following year.

Absent that wild card, or something zany like the Zen governor refusing to return from his China trade mission, look for the gubernatorial rubber stamp to repeat - an age-old problem for the party out of power, the incumbent's age notwithstanding.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Reach Whalen at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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