Democrats' Sweep in California Could Have Lasting Impact
By Rene Sanchez and Lou Cannon
It is a sweep that could bring seismic change to the nation's largest state, and it has enormous national implications.
Led by Gov.-elect Gray Davis, who crushed his Republican opponent, Dan Lungren, California Democrats have put themselves in a position to exert a profound influence in the next presidential election and alter the balance of power in Congress.
By promoting moderate messages to a largely content electorate, stressing issues such as education and successfully branding their opponents as political extremists, Davis and other Democrats recaptured the political center – and the state – from the Republicans who had dominated California politics.
"In this election, the Republicans shot themselves in the foot and then put the foot in their mouth," said John Davies, who managed a Republican congressional campaign along the state's central coast.
As governor, Davis will play a decisive role in determining how California's 52 congressional seats will be realigned after the 2000 census, a potential boon for Democrats. Nationally, California almost always dominates presidential politics because of its size, diversity and potential for campaign fund-raising.
Davis has vowed to steer the state in a direction much different from the one Republican Gov. Pete Wilson has chosen over the past eight years. Wilson, who could not seek reelection because of California's term-limits law, led divisive campaigns to end affirmative action, government services to illegal immigrants and bilingual education.
Throughout his campaign, and in the aftermath of his victory, Davis said improving the state's floundering public schools was his top priority. Speaking to supporters here late Tuesday night, Davis said, "The era of divisive wedge issues is over once and for all."
Today, as he bounded from San Diego to the San Francisco Bay Area on a victory lap with Lt. Gov.-elect Cruz Bustamante, the first Latino elected to a California state office, Davis announced that as soon as he is sworn in he will convene a special legislative session on California's education problems.
"The message I believe this election sent is that voters want problem-solvers, not ideologues," Davis said during one stop today. "They want people who worry about them every day, who worry about how their schools can improve, how their neighborhoods can be safer, how they can keep and get better jobs."
Davis, 55, is promising to toughen the standards that California has for hiring and evaluating teachers, end social promotion of failing students, improve the state's low reading scores and set aside $3 billion over the next five years to supply schools with new textbooks. Davis also opposes giving students tuition vouchers to attend private schools, an idea Lungren stressed in his campaign.
Only a year ago, Davis was still not well known among most California voters, despite the fact that he was the state's lieutenant governor and has been a fixture in politics here for more than 20 years. Even Democratic strategists had doubts that Davis's cautious – and some say dull – political style would give him much of a chance in a state that has elected Republicans as governor since 1982.
Davis won with strong backing from women, blacks, Latinos, young voters and even some moderate Republicans apparently attracted by his views on schools, the environment and crime, and unimpressed by Lungren's attempt to style himself as a conservative in the mold of Ronald Reagan.
Lungren also had worked much harder than Republicans in the past to win over California's fast-growing Latino electorate. But exit polls on Election Day showed that four of five Latino voters supported Davis and that nearly the same number backed incumbent Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in her campaign again Republican Matt Fong.
Among the few positive signs for Republicans amid the wreckage were the successful House campaigns of two moderates who had better luck than Lungren in attracting Democrats and independents. Both won their party's nomination largely because of the state's new open primary, which Sacramento political analyst Tony Quinn, a former GOP adviser, calls "the potential saving grace of the GOP."
In the Sacramento area district vacated by Rep. Vic Fazio (D), Doug Ose won decisively Tuesday after upsetting a favored conservative in the primary. And in a Los Angeles County coast district, Assemblyman Steve Kuykendall narrowly defeated Janice Hahn, a strong Democratic candidate. Kuykendall and Ose favor abortion rights. They also took moderate positions on gun control and environmental issues, on which Davis effectively depicted Lungren as extreme.
Democrats hold a 28-to-24 lead in California's post-election House delegation, a GOP gain of one. But the current district lines are nonpartisan, drawn by a court after Wilson vetoed a redistricting plan by the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
"With a map and a few hours, it would be easy to draw lines that would cost four Republican House members their seats," Quinn said.
A partisan redistricting plus the new seats added by the census could give Democrats six or seven additional seats in the 2002 election, about the margin by which the GOP will now control the House.
To accomplish this, Democrats must hold the state legislature in 2000, which now seems likely. They gained five seats in the state Assembly on Tuesday, pushing their edge to 48-to-32, and two seats in the state Senate, where they have a 25-to-15 majority.
"There is almost no way Republicans can recapture the Legislature two years from now," said A.G. Block, editor of the California Journal, which analyzes state politics. "This was the year they had their best chances and they blew most of them."
Political change in California has often been an omen of national trends. The Democrats last won the governorship, the U.S. Senate and legislative control in 1958, when Edmund G. "Pat" Brown became the state's second Democratic governor of the century. Two years later, John F. Kennedy was elected president, ushering in eight years of Democratic national control.
Similarly, Ronald Reagan was elected governor in 1966, two years after a Republican presidential debacle that left analysts wondering if the GOP could survive. Reagan, like Pat Brown in 1958 and Davis Tuesday, carried in others on his party's statewide ticket. Two years later, the Republicans won the White House and held it for all but four years before Clinton was elected in 1992.
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