Good news or bad news?

News of Gavin Newsom’s departure from the governor’s race was met with mixed emotions in Democratic circles last week. From the beginning, the San Francisco mayor was a long-shot against attorney general, and former governor, Jerry Brown. And when Newsom abruptly left the race last month, many viewed it as a realization of the inevitable.

Conventional wisdom holds that uncontested primaries are good for political parties, and their candidates. Without a primary race, a candidate is free to raise and save money, and does not get bloodied by a member of their own party. But there is another school of thought that uncontested primaries are dangerous for candidates, that complacency and overconfidence can set in, while the other party’s candidate is battle-tested in a tough primary race.

So is Gavin Newsom’s departure from the race a good thing or a bad thing for Jerry Brown’s gubernatorial ambitions? It depends on which Democrat you ask.

“In 1998, Republicans thought they were very clever by clearing the field for Dan Lungren,” said Garry South, a former Newsom adviser who also ran Gray Davis’s 1998 gubernatorial campaign. “Lungren kind of smirked his way through the primary. Because Davis had gone through a heavily contested primary, we were ready for the general. Lungren never was. That’s the danger you have with Jerry Brown.”

And South cautioned Democrats who think Brown can be elected to the governorship simply because of his dynastic political name.
“The last Brown who ran for governor (Kathleen Brown in 1994) kind of walked through the primary and got beat by 15 points,” said South. “There’s history here that is unsettling when you think about the Brown name. Jerry Brown lost the California (presidential) primary in 1980. He lost the Senate race in 1982. He lost California in 1992, when he was running for president, to Bill Clinton.”

But not all Democrats share South’s concerns. Party Chairman John Burton said Newsom’s exit gives the party an opportunity they didn’t have in 2006, when Phil Angelides spent millions to hold back a primary challenge from Steve Westly.

“Contested primaries are very debilitating,” Burton said. “You end up having a fratricidal thing. Look at what happened to Phil. Steve had his own resources, and Phil had to spend a lot of money on that” race.

Angelides was eventually crushed in the November general election by Gov. Schwarzenegger.

So which is the more appropriate comparison? Is it the 2006 Democratic primary, or the three-way race in 1998, when Gray Davis beat millionaire Al Checchi and Rep. Jane Harman?

Rob Stutzman, who worked for Lungren in 1998 and is now an adviser to the Meg Whitman campaign, said it is worth comparing Brown today to where Angelides was at this point in 2005. “He’s far behind where Angelides was in fundraising,” Stutzman said. “Brown has raised money, but he’s not been a fundraising juggernaut.”

Stutzman also noted that labor unions – the major funders of Democratic races – may have their hands tied with some expensive ballot initiative campaigns next year, including an effort to change the state’s pension system, and an effort to curb unions’ ability to use membership dues for political purposes.

But that doesn’t mean Brown is Dan Lungren, either, said Stutzman. “I would caution any strong parallels or comparisons to 1998,” he said. “It has more to do with the environment. 1998 was a strong Democratic year, and Gray Davis won. 1994 was a strong Republican year, and Pete Wilson won.”

But that also has some Democrats nervous. With President Obama’s poll numbers faltering, and the state and nation’s economic woes worsening, national surveys show independents moving toward Republicans on generic ballots. And while California is politically more Democratic than most of the nation, the right kind of Republican candidates have had some success in the state.

Because he does not have a contested primary, Brown has already been able to move towards the political center, anticipating a general election campaign. A recent San Francisco Chronicle story noted the Brown filed an amicus brief in a case involving Chicago’s gun ban, arguing that the ban should not apply to other American cities. In the brief, Brown argued that if the court doesn’t act, “California citizens could be deprived of the constitutional right to possess handguns in their homes.”

Brown has made his distaste for campaigning well known. In a recent conversation with Beth Fouhy, which was released after it was revealed Brown’s spokesperson, Scott Gerber, recorded the conversation, Brown seemed to long for a political era gone by.

“When my father ran for governor they didn’t have all these paid consultants, you had volunteers,” he said. “Now everybody has vendors to talk to them about your hair style and about their Internet page and their this and that. The consultants take an enormous salary but they gotta do something. When you pay these guys twenty grand a month they have to produce something. The candidates often don’t understand because they haven’t been doing these things.”

South said those comments show an arrogance and ignorance about the current political process that should worry some Democrats.
“Jerry Brown is rusty,” said South. “When you look at his general election history, runing against Chuck Poochigian (running for attorney general in 2006) is utterly meaningless. Democrats are engaging in the height of folly if they extrapolate from 2006 that he is a shoo-in for governor.”

Others on the left are also getting jumpy. They see Brown with just $7 million in the bank, as of the latest reports, facing the prospect of running against a millionaire Republican candidate who can pour millions into a race for governor. They note that Brown has yet to assemble a campaign team, refusing even to acknowledge that he is a candidate for governor.

While that may have worked 30 – or even 15 – years ago, South says today’s political process demands better, and earlier, organization.

South is not alone. Liberal blogger Brian Leubitz recently vented  his frustrations at Brown’s refusal to even declare his gubernatorial candidacy.

“If he wants to run for governor, great, fantastic, let’s do it. But Brown needs to realize that he just can’t skate through without bothering to announce that he’s running,” Leubitz wrote.

But Burton said those voicing their concerns are a minority, and that he has confidence in Brown’s political ability. “Jerry Brown is battle tested,” said Burton. “After the first of the year, I’m sure he’ll put his campaign team in place. You don’t need political consultants right now. And he’ll raise enough money to run a competitive race.”

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