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California primaries are volatile, and the early leaders often lose

Here we are, less than a year from the 2010 primary election, with an open governor’s seat and interesting candidate fields for both the Democrats and Republicans.  

There’s no way to tell with certainty who will capture the major-party gubernatorial nominations.  But based on recent history, one thing probably is certain: the conventional wisdom will be wrong – again – and the early polls will not necessarily predict the ultimate winners.  In four of the last five gubernatorial primaries over 20 years, the early leaders did not end up with their party’s nod.

In the 1990 Democratic race, Attorney General John Van de Kamp started out way ahead of former San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein.  And how could he not have?  Van de Kamp, a prominent Los Angeles County native, had been an assistant U.S. attorney, district attorney of L.A. County and was in his second term as state attorney general.  Plus, his moniker was a household name in Southern California, due to his family’s eponymous bakeries and the family-owned Lawry’s Restaurant chain.  

Van de Kamp had scored major endorsements, including organized labor, the California Democratic Party and Feinstein’s successor as mayor of San Francisco, Art Agnos – who in the process blamed Feinstein for a multi-million-dollar budget deficit the city was facing.  Even then-Congresswoman Barbara Boxer, who played Thelma to Feinstein’s Louise in the 1992 dual U.S. Senate races, endorsed Van de Kamp over her sister San Franciscan.  

By the end of 1989, Van de Kamp was leading Feinstein by 18 points, had a considerable money advantage and was benefiting from his sponsorship of three high-profile ballot measures.  Feinstein’s cause looked so hopeless that her campaign chairman was in the midst of negotiating an honorable surrender to the attorney general.  

But she turned it around and ultimately creamed the more-experienced Van de Kamp by 11 percentage points statewide, carrying 57 of the 58 counties against him – including his own home base of L.A. County by 40,000 votes.  

The 1998 gubernatorial primary is one I’m intimately familiar with as campaign manager for then-Lt. Gov. Gray Davis.  Even though his name had appeared on statewide ballots a total of eight times going back to 1974, and he had been elected three times to two different statewide offices, Davis was widely written off as a viable candidate, dismissed as “road kill” by one national magazine.

In the first Field Poll of the race in 1997, Davis was in fifth place with only 8 percent of the vote.  Even in March of ’98, just 10 weeks before the June primary, Davis was still mired in fourth place with 11 percent – even though three of the potential candidates who had been ahead of him in the earlier poll (Dianne Feinstein, Leon Panetta and Richard Riordan) had all chosen not to run.

At one time or another, both of the other free-spending, multimillionaire Democrats, airline magnate Al Checchi and U.S. Rep. Jane Harman, were leading.  But on primary Election Day, Davis demolished them, receiving nearly three times as many votes as either, even though Checchi spent a record $40 million and Harman dumped $16 million into the race, compared to Davis’s $9 million.

In 2002, retired two-term mayor of Los Angeles Richard Riordan started out 41 points ahead of novice candidate William Simon, son of a former U.S. treasury secretary.  Riordan had garnered the support of most major Republican poobahs in California, and was even promoted behind the scenes by the Bush White House and Karl Rove.  Riordan was so confident he would be the Republican nominee that his early primary ads never mentioned his two GOP opponents, but rather went after Davis.  

But Riordan’s effort collapsed spectacularly in the end, and newcomer Simon drubbed him by 18 points.  If you do the math, that’s a nearly 60-point turnaround in a matter of weeks.

In 2006, the last gubernatorial election, two-term state Treasurer Phil Angelides eventually won the Democratic nod.  But people now forget that he wasn’t the early frontrunner, either – and he blew a long-standing lead with seven weeks to go.  In the initial Field Poll in February of 2005, Angelides was trailing both actor Rob Reiner and then-Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer.  Controller Steve Westly, who had not yet announced his candidacy, was a distant fourth with only 8 percent.

This race took many twists and turns before it was over.  With Reiner and Lockyer out, Angelides was leading Westly most of the way, usually by double digits.  But by April of ’06, Westly went ahead by 11 points in the Field Poll, and by 13 in the Los Angeles Times poll.  The final Field Poll, reported four days before the primary, showed a dead heat – Westly 35, Angelides 34. Ultimately, Angelides squeaked through, besting Westly by a little more than 4 percent.

 Going further back in time, in 1982 few people thought the dull, plodding Atty. Gen. George Deukemejian could defeat the brash, flashy Lt. Gov. Mike Curb, considered the Boy Wonder of California Republicans, for the GOP nomination for governor.  But he did.

In 1966, there was no way retired B-movie actor Ronald Reagan, a former Democrat who had never run for office in his life, could have beaten the highly respected former two-term mayor of San Francisco, George Christopher, for the Republican nomination for governor.  But he did.

So as the pundits and prognosticators pump out their predictions, keep in mind the volatile, unpredictable history of gubernatorial primaries in California.  These things simply don’t turn out as planned much of the time.  


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