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May 15, 2014
Bill Whalen: Likely epitaph for 2014 elections

California_Governor_Jerry_Brown.jpg(May 15 - By Bill Whalen, Special to The Bee)

If William Faulkner had it right and "the past is never dead, it's not even past," does that mean California is destined to return to its former political self? And by "past," that would be Republicans not merely competing in statewide contests, but actually winning - with consistency, no less.

It's a good question to ask, as this year's election in the Golden State is the latest installment in a political timeline dating back some six decades, with a significant milestone occurring each and every 10 years.

To wit:

1954: Goodwin Knight, who had replaced Earl Warren after the latter left Sacramento for Washington and the U.S. Supreme Court, wins a full term as governor. It's also the end of a one-party run on Sacramento dating back to the 19th century - 11 of the previous 14 governors being Republicans - as changing demographics (an out-of-state influx) and voter sensibilities (civil rights, social progress, government initiative) move the Golden State center-left. The lone Democratic statewide winner in 1954: Attorney General Pat Brown. You might recognize the last name.

1964: Republicans convene in San Francisco (that's not a misprint) to make Barry Goldwater their presidential nominee, dooming the party to a 44-state loss - Goldwater winning only his native Arizona and the Confederate corridor from Louisiana to South Carolina. The one upside: Ronald Reagan's "A Time for Choosing" speech a week before Election Day, which turns out to be the kickoff to the 1966 Governor's Office. Meanwhile, Willie Brown becomes one of four African Americans elected to the state Assembly, beginning his storied career in Sacramento.

1974: Like father, like son: Jerry Brown takes over from Reagan, thus ending the family's eight-year exile from the Horseshoe and beginning a 40-year span in which the younger Brown would mount five more statewide runs and three failed presidential bids. Watergate spills into the Golden State, giving Democrats a near-supermajority in the state's congressional delegation, including a pair of freshmen - George Miller and Henry Miller - who only now are retiring. As for Brown, eight years later he'd mount a third and final presidential run (we think) that promised to "take back America from the confederacy of corruption, careerism and campaign consulting in Washington." Change the nation's name to California and the city's name to Sacramento and - voila! - you too can write sound bites for whoever runs against Jerry this fall.

1984: "Morning in America" - even in California, where Reagan captures 57.51 percent of the vote. Four years later, George H.W. Bush would become the last GOP presidential candidate to carry the Golden State, albeit with an anemic 51.1 percent of the vote (2.3 percent less than Bush's national total). And it's been downhill ever since. Three decades later, "morning" is more like "mourning" for local conservatives, as the Democratic presidential hold has gone from tenuous to the ultimate in tensile strength: Barack Obama twice has carried California with 60 percent of the vote or better, bettering Reagan's take.

1994: As with Watergate two decades prior, the midterm breeze reaches California, with Republicans winning five statewide offices - governor, attorney general, state treasurer, secretary of state and insurance commissioner. The bench is deep, but it isn't sturdy. Former Gov. Pete Wilson leaves office in 1998 due to term limits. Former Attorney General Dan Lungren loses that year's governor's race, as does State Treasurer Matt Fong in his bid to replace Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate. In June 2000, Chuck Quackenbush steps down as insurance commissioner amidst scandal. Two years later, the term-limited Secretary of State Bill Jones finishes third in the GOP gubernatorial primary and Republicans begin an era of first-time candidates running for the state's highest office - Bill Simon, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Meg Whitman.

2004: A year after the historic recall vote and talk of a "once in a century" reshaping of the Golden State landscape, it's a buzz-kill return to Fortress California. Schwarzenegger campaigns up and down the state for Republican candidates: not a single one of California's 153 legislative or congressional seats changes party hands. Though an attempt at nonpartisan redistricting reform fails a year later in Schwarzenegger's "Ishtar" of a special election, Californians do opt for an open-primary system with 2010's Proposition 14, a featured item in Arnold's talking points on Sacramento successes.

So if history were to come full circle, Republicans one day will start winning gubernatorial contests, as in the past helped by incumbents overplaying their hand (in 1958, then-Gov. Knight and then-Sen. William Knowland decided it was a good idea to switch jobs; voters disagreed and opted against both). Then again, it took Democrats the better part of 70 years to turn things around; the present Republican slump has yet to reach its third decade.

Moreover, the California GOP will need a boost from changing demographics and sensibilities, which at the moment is a major liability for a party-out-of-power that's managed to alienate minority constituencies and proved too slow to adapt to changing mores (same-sex marriage, illegal immigration).

The likely epitaph for 2014: As with Democrats in 1954, Republicans will be lucky if they walk away with one statewide office. Four years from now, they'll be tickled pink if they have a gubernatorial candidate who's in any way Brown in terms of a lasting presence in Sacramento.

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



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