There is much hand wringing these days about the potential impact of a
contested Democratic primary on the outcome of the fall campaign against
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In a recent look-ahead story, the Los Angeles Times, while chronicling the
governor’s troubles, wrote that one of the “bright spots” for the embattled
Schwarzenegger was the impending “bruising contest” for the Democratic nod
between Controller Steve Westly and Treasurer Phil Angelides. “Early signs
suggest that the two could rip one another apart in negative ads,” the paper
For his part, the putative frontrunner, Angelides, and his surrogates have
been trying for nearly a year to assert that he has sole dibs on the prize.
When Attorney General Bill Lockyer bugged out of the race last April,
Angelides “called on Democrats to unify around his bid,” the San Jose
Mercury News reported. As he traipses around to endorsement interviews,
Angelides has been heard complaining openly about Westly’s audacity in
taking him on.
When the treasurer filed his campaign papers on Valentine’s Day, he
continued whining in advance about a contested primary: “It would be
unfortunate if other Democrats do the work of attacking me to help Arnold
Schwarzenegger.” (This from the same guy who in 1994 was tagged as a
“champion smear artist” by the Washington Post for his character
assassination against former state Senate President pro Tem David Roberti in
the Democratic primary for treasurer.)
But never fear, the only thing we Democrats have to fear is, well,
fear-mongering about a divisive primary itself.
Take the last contested Democratic gubernatorial primary in 1998, when three
Democrats slugged it out for the nomination. Airline mogul Al Checchi spent
a still-record $40 million in the primary, and U.S. Rep. Jane Harman chipped
in $16 million of her own. Davis ended up spending $9 million. (The
combined total is still a record for any primary race in California’s
In that race, Checchi went ballistic on the air against both Harman and
Davis. Harman ran ads against Checchi, questioning his integrity. Davis
ran ads against Checchi. Some of the same Jeremiahs were tut-tutting that
this free-for-all didn’t bode well at all for the Democrats’ chances in the
fall. How could Humpty Dumpty be put back together again in time, no matter
who won the primary?
The Republicans, meanwhile, thought they were real smart because they
cleared the field, through the good offices of Gov. Pete Wilson, for
Attorney General Dan Lungren. In the two pre-primary debates–in which
Lungren took part along with the three Democrats because of the open
primary–the eventual GOP nominee stood there all smug and smirky, thinking
he was watching the Democrats self-destructing before his eyes.
But every observer of California politics knows how this story turned out.
When Davis won the Democratic nomination, he was battle-tested, focused and
disciplined. Lungren, who lollygagged through the primary without
Republican competition, emerged waterlogged, overconfident and off-message.
And he got creamed in November.
Another illustrative precedent: In 1994, Republican grassroots discontent
with Gov. Pete Wilson led to a primary challenge from millionaire high-tech
executive Ron Unz. The dissident ran millions in TV and radio ads attacking
the incumbent, and picked up almost a third of the Republican primary
voters. But in the fall, Wilson still demolished the one-time frontrunner
Kathleen Brown by 14 points.
In Angelides’ case, it may be particularly important that he learn how to
campaign against a real candidate. He hasn’t had a competitive race since
the 1994 campaign for treasurer–which he lost to Republican Matt Fong,
despite outspending him 3-to-1. He faced not a single primary opponent in
2002, and his general election patsy was truly the saddest sack in a very
sorry lot of GOP statewide candidates that year–Greg Conlon, a nearly
70-year-old man who had never run for public office before at any level and
who raised only a little more than $500,000 –far less than you would need to
spend in a competitive Assembly race.
Steve Westly, on the other hand, faced down a primary opponent in the
controller’s race who was an elected official with a considerable amount of
party establishment support. And in the fall, he beat the only Republican
to run a viable statewide race in ’02–state Sen. Tom McClintock.
But if my fellow Democrats don’t want to take my word for the ultimate value
of a primary campaign, maybe they should listen to–of all people–Phil
In 1993, in talking about the looming fight between Kathleen Brown and
Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi for the Democratic gubernatorial
nomination, immediate past state Democratic Chair Angelides “argued against
any attempt to spare the Democrats a contested primary,” the Los Angeles
Times reported. “That contested primary can test those candidates and
prepare them for the fall,” he told the Times in April of that year. “That
preparation from the primary gets people sharpened up.”
Welcome to the sharpening process, Phil.