Does Arnold have coattails?

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected in 2003, California Republican
political power was at its nadir. Democrats held every constitutional
office, and wide majorities in both legislative houses. But three years
later, with the governor holding double-digit leads in most public-opinion
polls, Republicans are beginning to look at whether Schwarzenegger can help
carry some Republican down-ticket candidates across the finish line in

The question is how two very different trends, one national and one unique
to California, will play out on Election Day. Democrats seem poised to make
big gains nationally, with party leaders talking openly about taking control
of one or both houses of Congress. But in California, Democrats find
themselves trailing badly in the governor's race, potentially slipping in
legislative races, and losing their grasp on two or three additional
statewide offices.

Once again, California seems out of step with national trends. As the
country has turned more conservative in its voting in the last decade,
California has solidified its role as a Democratic anchor, with both U.S.
senators, both legislative houses and every constitutional office in
Democratic hands.

But some observers say the national picture may determine more of what
happens in down-ticket races than the outcome of the governor's race. "Pete
Wilson won with a bunch of people, but that was in 1994 and there was a
national Republican tide," said political historian and GOP strategist Tony
Quinn. "Now, the national tide is going in the opposite direction, but
Republicans are doing well here. Bruce McPherson is the appointed incumbent.

"Cruz Bustamante is a terrible candidate, and Tom McClintock is known and
John Garamendi is not the best campaigner. So that gives them (Republicans)
an opportunity, but that doesn't necessarily mean they're on Arnold's
coattails," Quinn says

"Historically, there simply aren't coattails in California. George
Deukmejian won [a second term] with over 60 percent of the vote, and he
didn't carry anybody," he added.

But in 1998, Gray Davis demolished GOP nominee Dan Lungren in the governor's
race, leading a charge for what became a wildly successful Democratic year.
Republican strategist Dan Schnur says there is often something of a coattail
effect if the top of the ticket is particularly strong.

"It's not as if California voters suddenly woke up in the late 1990s and
said, 'Holy smoke, what this state needs is a Democratic treasurer or other
Democrats," he says. "A lot of casual voters made a choice at the top of the
ticket and then stayed with that choice as they went down."

Claremont McKenna College government professor Jack Pitney says it is not
uncommon for a candidate to win at the top of the ticket while his party
does poorly in other races. Pitney points to New York and Massachusetts as
examples of traditionally Democratic states with Republican governors. And
those Republicans, like Schwarzenegger, are considered political moderates.

Angelides spokesman Steve Maviglio points out that Schwarzenegger has
shunned the rest of the Republican ticket in an effort to appeal to
Democrats. "The more he tries to distance himself from the party, the less
of an effect he will have on the rest of the ticket."

Conservative blogger Jon Fleischman says Republicans up and down the ticket
may get a boost, not from Schwarzenegger, but from McClintock. "With the
poll showing McClintock tied with Garamendi, I have seen the surge in
enthusiasm. It's created such energy among the conservative community," he
says. "A month ago, I would have told you Arnold's shift to the left will
lower Republican turnout. The news about McClintock being so close spread
through the grass roots like a wildfire. Conservatives have been trying to
elect Tom McClintock for a long time."

If that conservative charge does not materialize, conservatives will be
faced with an ideological dilemma. Including Schwarzenegger, the Republican
candidates running strongest are moderates: insurance commissioner candidate
Steve Poizner and Secretary of State Bruce McPherson.

"It shouldn't take a landslide to bring in McPherson or Poizner. It has less
to do with ideology than with the circumstances of the race," says Schnur.
McPherson has the advantage of running as an incumbent. Poizner has dumped
millions into his own race, and there is still residual anger among
Democrats toward his opponent, Bustamante, for entering the governor's race
during the recall election.

Even if it is a matter of circumstance, a Poizner or McPherson victory could
have ideological implications for the Republican Party. If no conservatives
win on Election Day, it could set off another round of internal squabbling
that has marked the state Republican Party for the last 20 years.

"If McClintock wins his election, he becomes the titular leader of the
Republican Party because Arnold Schwarzenegger is choosing to be more of the
bipartisan leader, as is his prerogative," says Fleischman. "If McClintock
doesn't win, it sets up an interesting scenario for Republicans: Would they
accept Steve Poizner as their future. That's something Republicans will have
to work out."

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: