Calif. gubernatorial race seen as touchstone for 2010 politics

The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty on what yesterday's results mean for November.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010; 2:34 PM

In a year of voter anger, anti-incumbency, distrust of government and disgust with corporate America, no political race better encapsulates all the conflicting currents buffeting candidates and citizens than the campaign for governor of California.

The contrast between the two nominees -- Democrat Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. and Republican Meg Whitman -- could hardly be sharper. He is the lifelong politician steeped in the ways of government. She is an outsider promising to put government on a diet and bring a fresh perspective to the capital's dysfunctional culture.

That is the metaphor for political year 2010 and one that, with the economy still in a fragile recovery, serves to underscore why Democrats are very much on the defensive in races for the House, Senate and governor across the country.

Scratch below the surface, however, and the choices for voters become more complex. "In theory it's the worst of both worlds," Bill Whalen, a political analyst at Stanford's Hoover Institution, said of the choice for California voters. "A career politician versus a CEO. Neither entity is held in very high esteem these days."

Tuesday's elections were a reminder that, while this is a tough year for Democrats and incumbents, there can be surprises ahead. Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln's victory in the Democratic runoff proved that, given the right conditions and the right opponent, a scrappy incumbent can change the equation and survive. Whether she can survive in November remains an open question.

The Nevada Republican Senate race, in which tea party favorite Sharron Angle defeated the establishment's candidate, was a reminder that antiestablishment politics may not always produce the strongest candidate for a general election. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) still is in trouble in his bid for reelection, but he is happier with the very conservative Angle as his opponent than he would have been with the alternatives.

That's why California becomes so intriguing. On the surface, it's advantage Whitman. But of course, this is California, a state that has tilted toward the Democrats for more than a decade, a state where President Obama is significantly more popular than he is nationally. California strategists on both sides anticipate a close race until November.

There are multiple contrasts between Brown and Whitman, outsider versus insider being just the most obvious. There is new versus old; experience versus inexperience; corporate versus government; big spending conservative (she spent more than $70 million of her own money in the primary) versus parsimonious liberal (he eschewed the governor's mansion when he was in office for a spare apartment). And, of course, there is male versus female.

In fact, both Brown and Whitman carry baggage that could weigh them down as they seek to lead the nation's most populous -- and in many ways most troubled -- state.

Brown is the mercurial permanent politician, twice a governor at an early age, a failed presidential candidate on several occasions, a former mayor of Oakland with a credible tenure and the current attorney general.

Though he has been in and out of office throughout his adult life, Brown has often positioned himself as the opponent of the political establishment. In his own words he has "an outsider's mind with an insider's perspective."

Whitman is the successful former CEO of eBay who also happens to have ties to Goldman Sachs, the investment banking firm that was charged with fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Until she got interested in politics, she rarely even bothered to vote. She also represents a political party that continues to suffer from image problems with a majority of the American people.

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