In a stinging rebuke from voters who elected him two years ago, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s efforts to reshape state government were rejected during a special election that darkened his prospects for a second term next year.
The setback for Schwarzenegger came on a night that also saw Democrats retain governorships in hotly contested races in New Jersey and Virginia, giving the party momentum heading into next year's mid-term congressional elections.
Schwarzenegger, the Republican governor and former Hollywood actor who likes to say he can sell anything, on Tuesday saw all four of his signature ballot proposals rejected.
“Usually politicians can find some silver lining. There is no silver lining tonight for Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Tony Quinn, co-editor of the California Target Book, a publication tracking state campaigns, said late Tuesday. “Arnold was completely repudiated by the people of California.”
The election pitted the once-dominant Republican governor against two of California’s powerhouse political forces — public employee unions and Democrats who control the Legislature.
The unions spent millions of dollars to beat Schwarzenegger’s propositions to limit the use of their member dues for political purposes, cap state spending, redraw legislative districts and restrict public school teacher tenure.
It was a sobering evening for a man once considered among the most popular politicians in America. The contest represented the biggest test yet of a faltering Schwarzenegger’s leadership.
Voters overwhelmingly defeated Proposition 76, the governor’s centerpiece proposal to slow the growth of state spending. Proposition 77, which would have redrawn legislative and congressional districts, was knocked down by a similar margin.
Failing by slimmer spreads were Proposition 74, a plan to make teachers work longer to achieve tenure, and Proposition 75, which would have restricted political spending by public employee unions.
Poll after poll showed it was an election that Californians didn’t want, with a total lineup of eight initiatives that didn’t connect with every day issues such as gas prices, housing costs and the war in Iraq.
Schwarzenegger’s conflict with the unions made him a target for teachers, nurses and firefighters. Their television advertising blitz helped push his popularity ratings to record lows.
Union leaders and Democrats who opposed the governor chanted “sweep, sweep” at their Sacramento victory party. “I’m very grateful to Arnold Schwarzenegger for really working people up,” said Deborah Burger, president of the California Nurses Association.
More flexible governor?
Appearing before supporters at a Beverly Hills hotel after learning that at least two of his initiatives had failed, a smiling governor did not concede defeat.
“Tomorrow, we begin anew,” Schwarzenegger said, his wife Maria Shriver beside him. “I feel the same tonight as that night two years ago ... You know with all my heart, I want to do the right thing for the people of California.”
Working with Democrats, the state’s dominant party, could prove key to the moderate Republican’s political future.
“He will probably be very flexible now,” Warren Beatty, the liberal actor who campaigned against Schwarzenegger’s initiatives, told Reuters Wednesday. “He’ll be very adroit in his attempt to win popularity.”
Indeed, Schwarzenegger in his speech to supporters pledged to work with Democratic leaders in Sacramento.
“I also recognize that we also need more bipartisan cooperation ... and I promise that I will deliver that,” he said. “The people of California are sick and tired of all the fighting and they are sick and tired of all those negative TV ads. We are going to go and find common ground.”
Though some of the ballot measures were complex, Schwarzenegger cast the election in simple terms: Support him and the state moves forward — vote no and protect a broken system of government in Sacramento.
“I guess I didn’t do a good enough job to convince them otherwise,” the governor said of voters.
The special election was the most expensive in California history, costing at least $300 million including advertising and administering the poll.
Tim Wong, 48, an independent from Belmont, called the election “a waste of the meager money we have.”
“These propositions were a diversion from the important issues,” Wong said. “It’s all show and no substance.”