WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — The pitched race for this swing congressional district sounds just like the kind of contest Republican leaders had in mind when they once dreamed about the political benefits of an initiative to end affirmative action programs in government.
But here in this East Bay Area suburb, a conservative Republican incumbent has been forced into the fight of his life by a challenger whose campaign is largely financed by national Democrats sensing an opportunity.
This would be the time--the Republican thinking went--that Rep. Bill Baker could tie his reelection campaign to the popularity of Proposition 209 and force Democrat Ellen Tauscher to reluctantly defend a losing issue.
The reality, however, could not be much different.
"I just don't think this is a cutting issue," Baker said recently. "We are ahead on the issue--and it's a 2-to-1 issue. And I guess I could beat it to death if that was my style of politics. It isn't."
Something has happened to the California Republican playbook for 1996.
With less than a month remaining until the election, Proposition 209 is, so far, the GOP's parachute that didn't open. Leaders of both parties said in interviews that--so far--not a single candidate in any of California's 152 races for the Legislature or Congress has treated Proposition 209 as anything more than a minor interest.
Opinion polls still indicate that the initiative to end race and gender preferences in government hiring and contracting as well as college admissions is headed for a lopsided victory. A recent Times Poll found registered voters favoring the initiative 60% to 25%.
But the cool reaction from Republican candidates represents a battlefield victory for opponents of the initiative. As one Republican official put it, the highly emotional and controversial debate about the initiative's impact on race relations has made it "radioactive" for GOP candidates.
"The Democrats have already beat the crap out of Republicans for being mean," the official said. "If you're a candidate in a tight race, you are not going to take the chance of feeding into that."
Consultants and other political watchers are divided about whether this reaction was predictable.
Allan Hoffenblum, the Republican consultant for Baker and other California GOP congressional and legislative candidates, said the debate about affirmative action lacks the intensity of 1994's clash over illegal immigration via Proposition 187 because voters see less evidence of a problem in their daily lives.
"Illegal immigration has a higher intensity because people think it does affect them," he said. "I never thought this would develop as a hot-button issue. I don't think it is a wedge issue."
On the other hand, Bruce Cain, a political science professor at UC Berkeley, said Proposition 209 has taught California observers a lesson about the electorate's racial sensitivities.
Cain said the affirmative action debate has demonstrated a social ambivalence that was not predictable after the strong support two years ago for Proposition 187. That initiative, now stalled in the courts, sought to stop public benefits for illegal immigrants.
"The '90s have been characterized by these shifts of mood--from the year of the woman to the year of the angry white male to the year of ambivalence," Cain said. "Our political climate is almost like the New England weather. So I think this is surprising. I think after 1994 a lot of people expected [Proposition 209] would be a big issue."
Last year at this time, the specter of a national debate about affirmative action caused President Clinton to announce a new policy called "mend it, don't end it." About the same time, Republican rival Bob Dole authored a federal bill to mirror the proposed California initiative.
In California, state Democratic leaders were torn about whether to answer the Republican initiative with an alternative ballot measure or an opposition campaign. Meanwhile, state Republicans were gleefully predicting an election-year tail wind for their candidates.
Nobody was a bigger booster than Gov. Pete Wilson. He privately told Dole's presidential campaign that this was the ticket to victory in California. He had, in fact, used the issue as a major platform for his own ill-fated presidential campaign a year earlier.
Wilson also helped persuade the state Republican Party to invest as much as $1 million to help the initiative. Today, he remains a believer that the issue has Republican coattails.
"We recommend that not only candidates run on this, but that public policy groups, associations and other individuals come out in support," said Sean Walsh, Wilson's press secretary. "We have a clear issue of right versus wrong."
John Herrington, chairman of the state Republican Party, echoed Wilson's continued enthusiasm for the idea. But he said he also recognizes the political reality seen by some GOP candidates.