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California recall ripples into 2004

The dynamic duo of American politics right now is Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean and Arnold Schwarzenegger. No two men could be less similar in physique, accent, ideology and style, but both have helped spark voter excitement.
Arnold Schwarzenegger greets supporters during a rally in San Bernardino, Calif.
Arnold Schwarzenegger greets supporters during a rally in San Bernardino, Calif.
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The dynamic duo of American politics right now is Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean and Arnold Schwarzenegger, California’s new governor-elect. No two men could be less similar in physique, accent, ideology and style, but both have helped spark voter excitement of a kind not often seen in recent American politics.

THE FIELD POLL estimated Tuesday that as many as 10 million California voters, about two-thirds of all those registered, would vote in the election on recalling Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

According to the California Secretary of State’s Web site Wednesday, with 99.8 percent of the precincts reporting, nearly 7.9 million people voted on the recall.

But according to Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, as many as one million absentee ballots, plus some unknown number of provisional ballots — used when a voter went to the wrong precinct — have not yet been added to the vote total.

This year’s crusade to recall Davis was initially driven by veteran anti-tax crusader Ted Costa and later bankrolled by Rep. Darrel Issa, but the movement took on a life of its own, prompting more than 200,000 Californians to register to vote in the past six months.

The recall generated intensity on the opposing side as well — and not just in California. The web-based, left-leaning advocacy group raised $500,000 in less than 24 hours to pay for anti-recall TV ads. Of the roughly 12,000 people who paid for the ad campaign, 45 percent were from outside California.

Davis, Dean and their allies argued that the recall placed democracy itself at risk.

“Impeachment. Florida and the 2000 Election. Redistricting in Texas. The California Recall. The pattern could not be clearer: When they don’t win elections fair and square, the Republican leadership goes to extreme lengths to overturn the democratic will of voters,” said Zack Exley,’s organizing director.

Dean used similar rhetoric. “The right wing of the Republican party is deliberately undermining the democratic underpinnings of this country,” he said as he campaigned with Davis last month in Los Angeles. “They do not accept the legitimacy of our elections.”

Dean said he was “absolutely” convinced that President Bush and his strategist Karl Rove were playing a covert role in the recall. And Dean blamed Bush for California’s economic woes. “I don’t see how you can complain about Gray Davis’ management of the economy, when the fact is that the economy is in the tank because of the president of the United States.”

Davis’ defeat indicates that most California voters didn’t find these arguments persuasive. In fact, exit polls indicated that one out of every four Democratic voters chose to remove Davis. Fifty-five percent of independents supported recall.

Cain pointed out Wednesday that Schwarzenegger and conservative Republican state legislator Tom McClintock garnered a combined 62 percent of the vote, which he called “a stunning result” in a state where only 35 percent of the voters are registered Republicans.

Among Latino voters — normally one of the Democrats’ strongest constituencies — 47 percent voted for recall, according to exit poll interviews.

Was it ironic or fitting that two trend-setting, cutting-edge organizations, and the Dean campaign, put their weight behind a quintessential old-style politico such as Davis? Although stylistically different,, Dean and Davis had a kinship in their prodigious fund-raising abilities.

Dean and raise huge amounts in smaller increments than Davis did in his 30-year career, but whatever the size of the individual check and whether the venue for raising money is a Web site or a Pacific Heights cocktail party, no political movement and no candidate thrives without money. If Dean ultimately wins the Democratic nomination, his fund-raising ability will be a major reason.

Even while working to enlarge their own campaign warchests, Dean and the other Democratic contenders had little choice but to make the pilgrimage west to try to save Davis.

Since California holds its presidential primary next March, the contenders had to demonstrate party loyalty. After all, Davis might have survived the recall and would have been able to help one of the Democrats win the primary and perhaps clinch the nomination.


Whether or not it was masterminded by Rove, as Democrats seemed to think, the recall effort created a nightmare world for Democrats in which no victory would be permanent and no incumbent could feel secure.

Davis voiced this sense of living through a bad dream last month when former President Clinton campaigned with him in Los Angeles. “Some days I wake up and wish he was still president,” Davis said. “He’ll always be the president for us.” Instead George Bush is the president, Republicans control both houses of Congress, and now Republicans will serve as governors of the nation’s four most populous states.

For California Democrats, the recall’s most demoralizing aspect was that Republicans had maneuvered them into spending time, energy, and money in a struggle to defend a man whom many party activists despised. It was bad karma cleverly engineered by the GOP.

California’s well-heeled and savvy Democratic donors, who ordinarily would be deeply involved in the presidential race by this point, instead have been forced to spend six months trying to rescue Davis.

“This whole process has been so laden with negativity,” said Northern California Democratic activist and fund-raiser Barbara Schraeger on election eve. “It hasn’t been issue-oriented or candidate-oriented and it has diverted a lot of people’s resources.”

Among those diverted have been California’s labor unions and their national affiliates who, Democratic insiders report, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars that they could have invested in 2004 grass-roots organizing for the Democratic presidential candidate.

Despite union leaders’ opposition to recall, 46 percent of the rank-and-file union members who showed up to cast ballots chose to disregard their leadership and voted to recall Davis, according to exit poll interviews.

With Schwarzenegger as governor, the unions will be forced to spend even more money and time fighting to defend pro-labor legislation Davis signed into law.

It would premature to see Schwarzenegger’s victory as a sign Bush will win California’s 55 electoral votes next year. Barring a blowout along the lines of 1984, it seems improbable that Bush could win a state where in each of the last three presidential elections the Democratic candidate has won by an average margin of 1.3 million votes.

But after losing gubernatorial elections in 1998 and 2002, California Republicans found in Schwarzenegger a charismatic candidate who proved ideologically acceptable to moderates and even to many Democratic voters.

“Democrats had had the luxury of running against socially conservative Republicans for a number of years,” said Cain. “This is the first time they faced what many people had been predicting would be their worst nightmare, a moderate Republican. They just didn’t know how to react.”


Tuesday’s election carried a lesson with national implications for Bush and the Democratic presidential contenders. Of the many factors that accounted for the demise of Gray Davis, one of the most powerful was the tripling of the car tax, which he allowed to take effect in order to help close the state’s budget gap.

The car tax was a single, simple, easy-to-understand financial hit: Californians must now pay $800 or more for their annual vehicle registration. A middle-class tax increase — especially one that is so easy to understand — can be political poison.

No coincidence that Dean’s rival, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry has more and more made taxes a central theme of his campaign.

In order to move toward a balanced federal budget, Dean would roll back the tax cut packages enacted in 2001 and 2003.

But getting rid of the middle-class portion of the tax cuts is “bad economics and it’s bad social policy,” Kerry argues. “Last time I looked the problem in America was not that the middle class has too much money.”