Alan Cranston has lived a charmed political life. The 71-year-old legislator has been a tireless, politically astute Democratic senator from California the past 15 years. But he has survived three terms in the Senate with relative ease in part because of the people who chose not to seek the office at critical turns of the political calendar, or because Republicans picked weak candidates to oppose him.
On Tuesday the GOP will choose again, from a field of 13 contestants that has never had an obvious front-runner. If Cranston's luck holds, the Republicans will nominate a staunch conservative: TV commentator Bruce Herschensohn, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, State Sen. Ed Davis of Chatsworth or Rep. Bobbi Fiedler of Northridge.
Any one of the four would be certain to give Cranston a tougher reelection race than he had in 1974 or 1980. But Cranston's survival quotient would have to be rated at least fair to good.
Or Republicans could select 46-year-old Ed Zschau of Los Altos, a two-term Silicon Valley congressman who has spent abundantly for television ads to educate Californians on how to pronounce his name (sounds like \o7 shout, \f7 without the t). Zschau is a moderate whom the conservative pack now attacks as too liberal to be called a Republican; as a man so disloyal to Ronald Reagan that he voted against the MX missile and, at one point, against aid to the Nicaraguan \o7 contras.\f7
But Zschau may have the best chance of unseating Cranston in the fall. He has the poise of a former business-school professor, the savvy of a high-tech entrepreneur and an engaging manner that could appeal to a broad cross section of voters. Zschau also has a record and political philosophy much more in tune with California voters than his foes to the right: conservative on fiscal matters and moderate on social issues and foreign affairs.
Moderates, however, have always had trouble surviving a primary test against conservatives. This fact helps account for Cranston's winning a Senate seat in the first place.
Back in 1968, few Democrats gave more than a moment's thought to challenging Republican Sen. Thomas Kuchel, a moderate-to-liberal pro who was one of California's most popular politicians. But waves of political change had lapped across the state. Ronald Reagan was governor. Voters were polarized by the Vietnam War and student unrest.
In the primary, Kuchel was upset by Max Rafferty, the voluble, archconservative state superintendent of public instruction. Cranston, who lost his state controller's job in the 1966 Reagan landslide, easily won the Democratic nomination and went on to victory over Rafferty in November.
But what had Cranston won? Californians had become fickle and ambiguous about what they wanted in a senator. They turned out senators with regularity in the 1960s and 1970s. The seat now occupied by Republican Pete Wilson was held by six different senators--three Republicans and three Democrats--in the space of 24 years.
Many thought Cranston was doomed to one-term service going into 1974. It appeared that Ronald Reagan, winding up his second term as governor, might run for the Senate as a platform for future presidential campaigns. But he decided not to, so Republicans nominated H.L. (Bill) Richardson, a genial fellow (now a candidate for lieutenant governor) and one of the most conservative members of the state Senate. Cranston breezed to a second term.
In 1980, the GOP picked Paul Gann, a co-author with Howard Jarvis of Proposition 13, as its candidate. Gann had never held office, yet was something of a populist California folk hero for his initiative petition campaigns. But if Republican leaders thought they could beat Cranston with an inexperienced campaigner, they seriously underestimated Cranston's abilities and latent popularity. While other liberal Democratic senators were toppled throughout the nation by the New Right and the Reagan landslide, Cranston won by a landslide of his own.
It finally seemed that Cranston was secure in his Senate career. He had generated financial support from a broad spectrum of California business and industry, including many prominent Republicans, through diligent understanding of their needs and by working in their behalf. He sponsored park and wilderness bills popular with environmentalists and Californians in general.
Although it is difficult for a senator whose home state is so far from Washington, Cranston and his staff have paid close attention to constituent needs. Tall, gaunt and quite bald, Cranston is not a dashing political figure or an exciting speaker. But his stamina and energy have repeatedly been demonstrated through his work as a Democratic Senate leader and by his competition in senior-citizen track meets.