High-stakes political poker

The World Series of Poker is broadcast weekly on ESPN. Bravo runs a program about celebrities playing cards for money. The Travel Channel has set up shop in Las Vegas to highlight the betting action there. And then there’s the California Channel, which has the rights to a high-stakes gambling program that puts the competition to shame.

This fall’s special election in California represents bigger stakes than all the seven-card stud and Texas Hold ‘Em tournaments on cable television combined. More interesting than the amount of money involved, though, is the magnitude of the risks taken by both Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his union adversaries trying to achieve their respective goals. The bet that pays off will redefine California politics and government for a generation.

Schwarzenegger’s gamble was the most obvious. He’d been collecting a serious stack of political chits since the day he took office, carefully nurturing his growing popularity through victories on his repeal of the car tax, a ballot campaign to pass deficit-reduction bonds, and a negotiated settlement on workers compensation reform. He got a little banged up last November trying to win state Assembly seats that were drawn specifically to be unwinnable. But for the most part, he came into 2005 on a glide path toward re-election.

Whether the confrontation spurred by his package of ballot initiatives was motivated by political brinksmanship or an honest attempt to break the legislative logjam that paralyzes Sacramento — or both — is a debate for another time and place. But there’s no question that Schwarzenegger could have easily played a pat hand. Instead, he pushed his entire pile of chips into the middle of the table. Raising the stakes this high has already gotten the governor the budget he wanted with no serious resistance from the Legislature. Now, looking toward November, he’s raising again.

So thunderous was Schwarzenegger’s opening gambit that the other great political wager of the special election season has been largely overlooked. But the labor unions opposing the governor’s initiative package took an even more enormous risk last spring, when they bet their bankroll several months before the election on a multi-million dollar advertising campaign against Schwarzenegger. The result of their ad blitz was a politically disfigured governor.

Conventional wisdom among campaign professionals is that you hoard your resources until as close to the election as possible. No candidate ever wants to run out of money before the voters go to the polls, so most campaign budgets are build backwards from Election Day. So the more money you raise, the earlier you can start spending it.

Facing off against an opponent with sky-high popularity and even greater fundraising potential, Schwarzenegger’s foes turned conventional wisdom on its head. By risking everything at the outset, the unions were able to define the debate before the governor joined them on stage. Barely eighty days before his own special election, Arnold has never looked so life-sized.

But the Schwarzenegger who railed against politics as usual during the 2003 recall campaign was a force that had not been seen in California politics for many years. That version of Arnold, who combined the support of both conservative and centrist voters into a governing coalition, has not been much in evidence lately, but campaign season is the time on the calendar when he has most frequently emerged. The unions have effectively marshaled their forces: their challenge now is to find a way to lock in the swing voters who represent the governor’s true political support base but have drifted from his camp in recent months.

Eighty days isn’t just a lifetime in politics. It’s eighty lifetimes, maybe more. This special election is not a game for the faint of heart or the weak of wallet, and there are plenty of hands still to be dealt.

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