With more than $90 million spent and the jagged emotions of Californians over illegal immigration laid bare, the state's nastiest and most contentious election contests in years will rumble to a close Tuesday.
More than 8.8 million Californians are expected to cast ballots, either in person Tuesday or by mail, electing or reelecting a U.S. senator, a governor and a host of lesser constitutional officers and determining the fate of several hard-fought propositions.
Chief among them is the controversial Proposition 187, the initiative that would deny public education and non-emergency health services to illegal immigrants. The measure has divided the state's elected officials and candidates--largely along partisan lines--produced a raft of comment from national figures and provoked reaction among the state's residents unseen since 1978's groundbreaking Proposition 13.
But even that proposition, which sharply limited property taxes, did not carry the overwhelming emotional content of Proposition 187, which has prompted high school students and tens of thousands of other opponents to take to the streets, forced proponents to defend themselves against charges of racism and led both sides to conclude that the proposition's immediate impact will be a rush to the courts to determine its constitutionality.
The proposition's fate, and those of the scores of candidates on the ballot, rest in the hands of an electorate that is polarized and discontented, according to pollsters.
"Voters are in a mood to hear extremes this year," said John Brennan, director of the Los Angeles Times Poll. "They are not in the mood to hear a nice message. They are in the mood to hear a nasty message. I hate to say they are angry. They are just ornery."
Immigration--specifically the hiring of illegal immigrants--was the dominant focus for the final weeks in the close-fought election for U.S. Senate, which pits Democratic incumbent Dianne Feinstein against Republican challenger Mike Huffington. It is not at all clear as Election Day nears whether Proposition 187 will win or lose, or whether it will influence the outcome of the increasingly bitter governor's race.
Polls taken in the last week before the election suggested that Republican Pete Wilson was holding on to a lead over his Democratic challenger, Kathleen Brown, and that backers of Proposition 187 were also winning narrowly.
Nevertheless, Brown was scrambling to use her opposition to the initiative to vault past incumbent Wilson, who over the past year has overcome a massive deficit in early polls.
Over the weekend, pollsters were nervously fingering their spreadsheets and campaigns were casting about to determine their standing. While Wilson had at least a bit of breathing space over Brown, polls in the Senate race had Feinstein and Huffington in a virtual dead heat. All of their handlers were whispering that the races would hinge on one overriding uncertainty: voter turnout.
Acting Secretary of State Tony Miller said he expected 60.2% of California voters to cast ballots on Tuesday. That would be a slight increase from the 58.6% who voted in the last governor's race four years ago.
About 14.7 million Californians are eligible to vote Tuesday, 49% of them Democrats and 37% Republicans, with the rest belonging to minor parties. The figure was a record for a non-presidential election, easily eclipsing the mark of 13.5 million eligible voters in November, 1990. By contrast, 15.1 million were on the rolls for the 1992 presidential election.
Polling places will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday.
The races climax today and Monday with candidates and proposition partisans circling the state by car, bus, plane and virtually any sort of transportation system that can bring them into contact with voters. Those hiding out in their homes will get no respite, however, given the dawn-to-dusk television commercials that are expected to bombard voters in these last few days before the election.
Most of the staggering sums of money raised by candidates this election year has been spent on television, the major form of communication in this vast and varied state.
Before the last two weeks of spending was even counted, Wilson and Brown set a record in the amount of money raised in a race for governor--and they were expected to spend every last cent of it. In the last two years, Wilson collected $26.8 million and Brown $20.7 million. The sums do not include millions more spent after Oct. 22, when the financial filing period ended.
The duo's combined running total of $47.5 million easily outdistanced the $45 million raised and spent by Wilson and his opponent, Feinstein, in the 1990 governor's race.
The battle for Senate also set a record, with Huffington and Feinstein spending more than $38 million with more than a week to go before the election. Of that, Huffington spent more than $27 million of his own fortune, and Feinstein had loaned her campaign more than $2 million.