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GOP Momentum Has Yet to Reach California Voters

Politics: Lungren's close battle with Davis is exception among governor races. But state often defies U.S. trends.


From New York to Hawaii, 1998 is shaping up as a banner year for Republicans running for governor--the best, perhaps, in history.

And once again, California is shaping up as a possible exception.

With less than four weeks to go before the election, Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, the GOP nominee for governor, remains in the thick of a competitive race against Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis. Compare Lungren's position, however, to that of fellow Republicans across the country, many of whom are romping to reelection or heading into the home stretch astride enviable double-digit leads.

"We could be hitting a high-water mark," said Ed Brookover, a strategist with the Republican National Committee. With a gain of just three seats, an optimistic but not impossible goal, the GOP would control 35 statehouses--its highest total ever.

But if a Republican wave is building, it has yet to reach California.

Bigger, more diverse and more inwardly focused than most places--this is, after all, where much of America gets its cultural cues--California over the past several elections has been an island unto itself, largely impervious to outside forces and generally immune to broader political trends. Size is one explanation. Complexity is another.

The political winds that move voters "have got to blow in a lot of different directions in a state that's so large and so diverse," said Dan Schnur, a leading state GOP strategist. "California's got too much space and too many different kinds of voters for one movement to sweep everybody in."

True to contrarian form, in the 11 largest states holding governor's races in November, GOP candidates are trailing or even in just two: California and Georgia (where a Republican retread is making his third try for statewide office). In nine others--including New York, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida and Texas--the narrowest Republican lead in recently published polls was 9 percentage points, according to Brookover.

Even in Hawaii, a Democratic bastion, the GOP's Linda Lingle enjoys a double-digit lead over Benjamin J. Cayetano, the incumbent Democrat.

'We're a Separate Nation-State'

Although governor races generally tend to be localized affairs, turning on personalities and state dynamics more than national forces, today's political climate in California is distinctly different from the sunny GOP outlook nationally.

Much can change by election day, particularly as events surrounding the White House sex scandal continue to unfold. But at this point, Republicans appear likely to gain but a single seat in the state's 52-member House delegation, leaving Democrats in the majority. Republican state Treasurer Matt Fong is locked in a toss-up race with incumbent Barbara Boxer, one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the 100-member U.S. Senate.

In Sacramento, Republican strategists concede there is virtually no chance of taking over the Democrat-controlled state Senate. And privately, they acknowledge long odds against wresting back control of the Assembly.

"California has a history of voting contrary to the national trend," said Kevin Spillane, a Sacramento-based GOP strategist who forecasts a strong Republican year nationally but frets about the party's prospects here at home. "We're a separate nation-state, in many ways isolated from the politics that affect so many other places."

Whether electing a Republican governor and U.S. senator in 1982--a sterling Democratic year nationally--or sending two Democrats to the Senate 10 years later--when Republicans were gaining congressional seats across the country--California over the last two decades has tended to ignore, if not defy, larger national political trends.

An exception was 1994, when depressed Democratic participation--mirroring turnout nationally--helped Republicans win control of the state Assembly for the first time in 25 years. At the same time, however, Democrat Dianne Feinstein rode out the GOP tidal wave and managed to hang onto her U.S. Senate seat.

Why the California exception?

"I would argue it's because we're so big and complex and so different," said Ken Khachigian, a California native and political alumnus of the Nixon and Reagan administrations.

Or as Schnur, his fellow GOP strategist, put it, "One good political trend can blow through Michigan and pick up Ann Arbor and Lansing and Kalamazoo. It's a lot more difficult for any wind, particularly one that originates elsewhere, to move voters in Orange County and Fresno and Redding."

But size and diversity offer just a partial explanation. After all, upstate New York is every bit as different from the Bronx as Eureka, in California's far north, is from Yucaipa, in the Inland Empire.

One contributing factor may be California's weak party system, a legacy of the progressive movement early this century, which sought to decentralize political power. The modern byproduct is a much more entrepreneurial, candidate-centered form of politics than practiced in most other states.

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