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Governor's Race Trip Back in Time

June 09, 2002|JOHN J. PITNEY JR. | John J. Pitney Jr. is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of "The Art of Political Warfare."

Some commentators have likened the current California gubernatorial race to the 1966 contest. Like Gov. Gray Davis, Pat Brown tried to ensure he'd face a weak challenger by undercutting his supposedly stronger rival in the GOP primary. Bill Simon's supporters take heart from this comparison, since the weak Republican was Ronald Reagan.

This comparison has problems. California was much more Republican in those days, and Simon lacks Reagan's charisma and rhetorical skill.

Another analogy works better: the 1982 New York gubernatorial race between Democratic Lt. Gov. Mario Cuomo and Republican businessman Lew Lehrman. Like Davis, Cuomo was a tough-minded veteran of statewide office. Like Simon, Lehrman was a wealthy think-tank conservative. (If you go to a speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, you are sitting in the Lehrman Auditorium.)

Also like Simon, Lehrman had no experience in elected office and shallow roots in the state he wanted to lead. Lehrman had come to New York from Pennsylvania, just as Simon came to California from New York.

In each case, the think-tanker fought in a GOP primary against a less-conservative Irishman with strong support from a major suburb. Orange County's GOP activists generally backed former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. Members of the moderate New Majority organization wanted a like-minded candidate to lead the party. Despite their issue differences, strong conservatives such as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher also backed Riordan, thinking that he would have the best shot at Davis.

For the 1982 New York race, many moderate Republicans lined up behind former U.S. Atty. Paul Curran, who also had the blessing of the then-powerful Nassau County Republican machine. And yet in both cases, the conservative insurgent beat the party moderates on their own turf. Lehrman won Nassau County, and Simon won Orange County.

What does the comparison tell us about the upcoming general election? Both Davis and Simon can find hopeful signs.

For the incumbent, the good news is obvious: Cuomo won in November 1982. He did unusually well in Nassau County, nearly erasing the plurality that state Republicans needed to offset the Democratic edge in New York City. Davis hopes to perform a similar feat in Orange County, much as he did four years ago. And county Democrats should be happy to learn that Cuomo's performance foreshadowed gains in the New York GOP's onetime suburban stronghold. This year marked the first time that Nassau County Democrats have held the county executive's chair and a majority in the county legislature.

Moreover, Cuomo's 1982 victory came in the face of a massive spending advantage by Lehrman. In the current race, Simon has little chance of matching Davis' war chest, much less overwhelming it.

For Simon, the good news is that Lehrman scored as well as he did: 47.5% to Cuomo's 50.9%. This showing was remarkable because Lehrman was running as a Reaganite in a liberal state during a bad year for the GOP. In that recession election, the GOP lost dozens of House seats.

How did Lehrman come so close? His campaign spending helped a great deal but was far from the whole story. As Californians Michael Huffington and Al Checchi can attest, money alone does not decide elections.

Lehrman's personal wealth, however, did benefit him. As with Nelson Rockefeller before him, New Yorkers figured that he was too rich to go on the take. Simon's fortune is reportedly not in their league, but he has the opportunity to portray himself as unbought and unbossed.

Lehrman was less aggressive than Cuomo. Like Simon in 2002, he was earnest to the point of dorky, but the contrast with his Democratic opponent may have worked in his favor. Cuomo often came across as mad-dog mean, especially in their first debate, where he mocked Lehrman's gold wristwatch and dismissed his detailed issue statements as "term papers."

Davis has also shown a self-destructive streak of nastiness. In a Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate 10 years ago, he ran commercials comparing Dianne Feinstein to notorious tax cheat Leona Helmsley. The ads backfired, helping elect Feinstein.

Two differences between the 1982 and 2002 elections provide glimmers of hope to Simon. First, the midterm climate is more favorable to the GOP, with President Bush registering strong approval in California. Second, whereas Cuomo's record was largely free of ethical issues, Davis has faced harsh questions about his fund-raising practices.

Davis remains a heavy favorite, but the race could tighten. Both sides may start looking for lessons in a race that took place a long time ago in a state far, far away.

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