Experience Beats Money in Calif. Primary
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 4, 1998; Page A01
LOS ANGELES, June 3 Politicians have spent much of the 1990s running away from their résumés to avoid the wrath of the angry voter. But if California is any guide at the mid-point of this midterm election year, the bias against politicians has begun to fade and government experience may actually be an asset.
Political experience trumped money in the two premier primaries in California on Tuesday. At the same time, government experience triumphed over business experience. With the booming economy draining much of the anger from the electorate, voters here turned their backs on wealthy political novices who promised big changes in favor of plodding insiders who offered nothing more than competence and continuity.
Businessman Al Checchi spent perhaps $40 million of his own money pursuing the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and ended up a distant second to Lt. Gov. Gray Davis. Davis also defeated another self-financed millionaire, Los Angeles-area Rep. Jane Harman, and he will now face attorney general Dan Lungren (R) in the race to succeed retiring Gov. Pete Wilson (R) in the fall.
In the GOP Senate campaign, state Treasurer Matt Fong was heavily outspent by business executive Darrell Issa, but won anyway and will challenge Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) in the fall.
The results of Tuesday's primaries underscore how much the political environment here and perhaps nationally as well has changed. Six years ago this state helped propel Texas billionaire Ross Perot into the presidential race and sent two Democratic women to the Senate. Four years ago, California symbolized an election year shaped by anger, conservative ideology and money, one that saw Republicans capture control of the House and Senate.
So far, this year may be remembered less for what it is than what it is not. "This is not the year of the outsider, it's not the year of the woman," said Larry Thomas, who was a top aide to former governor George Deukmejian (R). Instead, Thomas said, voters want candidates "who understand the process" and have shown the ability to get things done in government.
No issue emerged to dominate the political debate here, nor has one taken over the national agenda. Some Republicans believe the independent counsel's investigation of President Clinton could do so. If that doesn't happen, the fall campaigns shape up as a battle that will be fought more at the center than at the extremes and one in which voters take a more measured view of politicians and the role of government than they have in recent years.
California long has been a political trendsetter, and there may be clues from Tuesday's primaries to the forces at work this year. But some analysts warned against jumping to conclusions, particularly about the role of money and negative advertising.
On the issue of political experience, the past has shaped the present in California. At one time, voters had a bias in favor of candidates with a business background, believing they had the kind of executive skills needed to make government more efficient. But the Perot campaigns of 1992 and 1996 and the 1994 Senate campaign by Republican Michael Huffington, who spent about $30 million of his own money in an unsuccessful effort to unseat Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), helped change that in California.
When Davis's advisers asked voters in the summer of 1997 whether they preferred a candidate with experience in business or experience in government, they got a pleasant surprise. "We found that people overwhelming favored someone with government experience," said Paul Maslin, Davis's pollster. "They were skeptical from day one about the Checchi candidacy generically and it meant Gray had a tremendous advantage."
Because of the high cost of campaigns, both political parties have sought to recruit candidates who can finance their campaigns. But as Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political analyst at Claremont College put it: "Money can buy admission to the arena, but it can't buy the game. Voters reacted not only against the amount of money that Checchi spent, but they also were not happy with the way that money was spent with the negative ads and with the lack of real positive alternatives."
California is not the only state this year to reject a big spending candidate. Last week, Kentucky voters picked Rep. Scotty Baesler as the Democratic nominee for Senate even though both of his opponents outspent him. A number of House candidates have come up short this year despite investing heavily from their own resources.
Some analysts have suggested that Checchi's poor showing proves that negative ads don't work and are likely to diminish. The reality is somewhat different.
In truth, Checchi's barrage of negative ads worked effectively in destroying Harman's campaign after she had surged into a lead. But the three-way primary proved Checchi's undoing. His ads not only hurt Harman, they also produced a backlash against Checchi. Davis, who stayed out of the early exchanges because he had less money, became the beneficiary. As first Harman and then Checchi sunk, he rose.
"I wouldn't pronounce the death knell of negative campaigning based on what we've seen in California," said Mark DiCamillo of the independent Field Poll in California. "In a three-way contest, flinging mud against one of the opponents can be misguided if there's a third candidate voters can go to."
Still, there are some political consultants who believe the changing political environment means there will be more balance between positive and negative ads this fall. Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said that until recently there was little incentive for candidates to run positive ads about their records because voters were cynical about politicians or government's ability to solve problems. "I think that has changed," he said. "Voters are much more willing to give credit where credit it due."
Harman's failure in the primary raises questions about the power of the women's vote. So far this decade, California Democrats have nominated women for governor in 1990 and 1994, for two Senate seats in 1992 and for the Senate again in 1994 and now 1996. Women account for 55 percent to 60 percent of the typical Democratic primary electorate. Harman appeared to have a built-in advantage against two male opponents.
Harman's advisers say the barrage of negative ads by Checchi destroyed any chance she might have had to mobilize female voters, although her own mistakes hurt her as well. Beyond that, say others, the political environment is far different than it was the Year of the Woman in 1992. "There are no gender-specific rights that are at risk. So why mobilize as a gender?" Jeffe said.
In the fall, however, Democrats still expect the women's vote to be crucial to their chances.
The other clue to the politics of 1998 came from Lungren's campaign. The staunch conservative softened the ideological edges of his message and appealed strongly to Latino voters, who have deserted the GOP in recent elections because of the anti-immigration Proposition 187 and other Republican tactics. Both Lungren and Davis appear determined to fight for the center of the electorate as much as they try to mobilize the activists in their parties. That too represents a change from 1994.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company