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Robert G. Kaiser
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Direct Access: The West

Wednesday, November 4, 1998

Washington Post Senior Correspondent Robert G. Kaiser hosted a live discussion of Tuesday's elections in western states. Kaiser's guest was Reagan biographer and former White House corespondent Lou Cannon.

Kaiser: Welcome to the post-election day edition of's political discussion. Our first guest this afternoon is Lou Cannon, one of the elder statesmen of American political writers. Lou covered the White House for the Post for many years before convincing us to let him return to his beloved California. He published a great biography of Ronald Reagan, and a memorable book on race relations, the police of Los Angeles and the Rodney King case earlier this year. Please send in your questions for Lou.

Cannon: Hi, I'm here and I'm happy to answer your questions.

Kaiser: Lou, let me ask the first question. Yesterday's results in California suggest the possibility that the politics of your state are undergoing a fundamental shift. Clinton won California twice; now the two Democratic Senators have each won twice, and there's a new Democratic governor who won by a landslide. The Democrats are in firm control of the legislature. What's going on out there? What does it portend for the future?

Cannon: Well there are several things going on here. The most important lesson from Tuesday's election is that the Democrats have learned is what the Republicans learned a long time ago. Four years ago Pete Wilson won reelection by essentially portraying his opponent Kathleen Brown as way to the left of the electorate. Wilson was pro-choice and he was against oil drilling off the coast. He had some reach with moderate voters. This year, Gray Davis captured the center early and never let go. He took advantage of Lungren's opposition to abortion rights and especially to Lungren's weak enforcement of laws on assault weapons to portray the attorney general as too far to the right for California. It worked for him, just as it had worked for Wilson.

Now, the other thing that is happening in California is the rapidly growing Latino vote. The Latino vote has increased three-fold since Wilson was elected. Traditionally this vote is about two-thirds Democratic, although there are Republicans such as Ronald Reagan who have won more than 30 percent of the vote in the past. But Latinos have been radicalized by Gov. Wilson in his campaign to pass Prop. 187. That measure, although directed at illegal immigrants, infuriated Latinos and convinced them that they had to vote. This year Gray Davis won nearly four out of five Latinos who also provided the margin of victory in several congressional races

Finally the victory of Democrats was significant Tuesday because they now have control of the governorship and the legislature through 2000, which means that they will be able to draw the redistricting lines after the 2000 census. The present lines of the congressional districts were drawn up by a court after Wilson and the Democratic legislature deadlocked. California is going to get probably five new seats after the census for a total of 57, and a pro-Democratic registration could increase the number of Democrats in the House by 6-8 seats. That's the margin by which the Republicans control the House today.

Charlottesville, Va.: I noticed that an exit poll showed that 30 percent of California voters are non-Christians (Jews, Moslems, secularists, etc.) Is this a long-term problem for the GOP? And why did West Coast Democrats (Boxer, Davis, Murray) run so well among affluent voters?

Cannon: I don't know fully the answer to the last question but I suspect it's because both Boxer and Murray did well among independent and GOP women, including women in very affluent areas. I think a lot of that had to do with the abortion issue. There's a large pro-choice majority in California and Washington. But in addition to that, the Republican candidates were particularly inept in talking about late-term abortion and gave the perception that they were against all abortion, which hurt the GOP.

In answer to the first question: I see no reason why the GOP shouldn't do as well among non-Christians as Democrats providing they talk about the issues in which these voters are interested. In most cases this means getting away from the highly divisive social issues and discussing education and the economy, which are issues on which the Democrats did very well in California in this and other recent elections.

Washington, D.C. : How long does it typically take for a California political trend to sweep across the nation? (Can't be soon enough!)

Cannon: My answer would be that that varies. In some cases as the anti-tax revolt, embodied in California by Prop. 13 in 1978, the change occurred in the next election cycle. In other cases it takes longer. But my word of caution to Democratic enthusiasts would be that California is the only one of the nation's 10 most populous states in which there will now be a Democratic governor. Republican governors in such states as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Illinois to name only three, have traditionally proved more pragmatic and middle of the road than congressional Republicans.

Long Lake, Minn.: Ignoring the spin that the Democrat's "won," isn't it the fact that the voters are rejecting both parties whenever they have the chance?

Cannon: Not really. Yesterday there were four incumbent Republican House members and only one Democratic incumbent who were defeated. Both the results and the exit polls show that most voters liked their representatives. It's a little bit like the old saw where people were asked about the American Medical Association, which they didn't particularly like, and their own doctors, whom they liked very much. People will tell you they don't like politics and they don't like Congress, but they often like their own congressman.

Lubbock, Texas: Do you think this election result will help bring an end to the extreme conservative sentiments that seemed to be spreading in this country over the last few years?

Cannon: No. I think that this election is likely to bring about a struggle over control for the Republican Party. Conservatives are very institutionally entrenched in the GOP. They have their think tanks, their fund-raising groups, their grass-roots organizations. Most believe very strongly in the causes for which they fight and I don't think they're going to give up control of the GOP easily.

Vienna, Va.: What's the update on the close Senate race in Nevada?

Cannon: The last I looked, all the networks had called it for Harry Reid. But the Republican had not conceded. I think Reid has won but it may be a few days before we know for sure.

Port Chester, N.Y.: Was abortion a factor in the elections? Should the pro-choice side be claiming victory?

Cannon: In every election, the single-issue advocates claim responsibility for what happened and in my experience they usually get too much credit and too much blame. Abortion rights WERE an issue in the 1998 election, at least on the West Coast, but they were often part of a larger, symbolic package. As an example, in California, Sen. Boxer used abortion rights and gun control and the environment as a kind of packaged set of issues to portray her opponent, Matt Fong, as overly conservative.

Kaiser: Just a few more minutes of our session with Lou Cannon.

Alexandria, Va.: Is Robert Dornan's future dead in the Republican party, or may he run again for a seat?

Cannon: He may run again, but I think his political future is as dead as the proverbial door nail.

Virginia: Is there any chance the GOP will read into last night's result a disgust with their affiliation with the religious right? If so, will someone be able to jettison the Gary Bauers and Ralph Reeds a la Buckley and the John Birch Society in the early 60s?

Cannon: My guess is that nobody is going to jettison these folks, but I think the Republicans are going to have to broaden their appeal if they hope to return to power in the West, particularly in California. What isn't clear at this point, at least to me, is who these western Republican leaders are going to be. In other parts of the country where the GOP still has control of the governors' offices, I think it's going to be the mostly moderate Republican governors who assert leadership, and I would particularly point to the Bush brothers who have an appeal far beyond the Republican right.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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