Calif. gubernatorial race seen as touchstone for 2010 politics

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.

The candidates and their strategists began to frame the general election as the voters were still being counted in California Tuesday night. "This is the year of the anti-politician and Jerry Brown is California's alpha politician -- 40 years in politics, a record of failure just about everywhere he's been," said Mike Murphy, the general strategist who has guided Whitman's campaign.

Brown went right after Whitman's lack of experience in his victory speech Tuesday night. "It's not enough for someone rich and restless to look in the mirror one morning and decide, 'Hey, it's time to be governor of California,' " he said. And then, in an apparent reference to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who came to office in 2002 as a celebrity outsider and whose approval rating has plummeted, he added, "We tried that. It didn't work."

Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who is advising outside groups aiding Brown, said the race might come down to which candidate can best define the other. "Is he defined as a career politician or is he able to define her as a corporate insider?" he said. "This is a cycle where politician as a career is a scarlet letter but being a corporate official is an obscene gesture."

Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist based in California, said Whitman could be the beneficiary of the national climate. "California is by no means immune to the national trends that speak to a very difficult year for Democrats, a demoralized Democratic base and independent voters that are choosing to support at this moment in time the Republican candidates in states all around the country by significant margins," he said.

But he noted that the Republican primary pushed Whitman farther to the right than she might have liked and said Brown, for all the disadvantages he faces, may find a way to run the kind of unorthodox campaign that could allow him to survive in a tough year for Democrats.

"He's always been unorthodox," Schmidt said. "He's always been, while inside the system, challenging it."

Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant based in Los Angeles, said Brown must convince voters that he's capable of fixing a broken political system in Sacramento and finding a way to pare California's budget deficit and restore economic growth -- without the ideological baggage that has attached itself to Democrats in Sacramento.

Brown also must prevent the race from becoming a future versus past choice. "He needs to escape being the subject of a History Channel documentary and be positioned as a governor for the future," Carrick said.

But in California, Whitman will have to deal with questions about whether the Republican Party has been captured by tea party activists and hardcore conservatives. She is more moderate than many in her party, but in the primary, she was dragged into a debate over immigration that could cause her problems with Latino voters in November.

Ultimately both candidates will need to tack to the center. Brown must shed any image that makes voters believe he is too closely aligned to the unions. Whitman must show that she has creative and credible policies to attack the economic and fiscal problems of the state, and the personality to deal with a Democratic-controlled legislature.

Voters in California will have to ask themselves what their real priorities are and which candidate is most likely to come closer to succeeding at solving the problems of the state.

The national debate centers on big government versus small government, left versus right, outsiders and insiders. But as California's gubernatorial race demonstrates, little will be that clear cut or that easy when voters go to the polls in November.

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