Struggling to recover from its losses in November, the California Republican Party is preparing to embrace a recall campaign against Gov. Gray Davis as part of its agenda for a comeback.
Party leaders expect delegates at the state Republican convention in Sacramento this weekend to vote overwhelmingly to back the effort to dump Davis in a special election. Both candidates for state party chairman favor the move, and Republicans are organizing a Davis recall rally Saturday outside the Capitol.
Yet the viability of a recall against the Democratic governor is far from certain. Recall supporters lack the money -- certainly for now -- to run the sort of vast petition drive needed to get the proposal on the ballot. No major donor has stepped forward to help.
The recall effort is also fractured: Dueling teams of Republican strategists are running separate campaigns.
As a result, some Republicans worry that the party is rushing into a misguided endeavor that takes attention from its main goals: the reelection of President Bush and the ouster of Sen. Barbara Boxer.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 27, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Davis recall -- An article in the California section Feb. 18 about a campaign to recall Gov. Gray Davis gave the inaccurate date of 1985 for the recall of Assemblywoman Doris Allen of Orange County. Voters recalled Allen in 1995.
Some key Republicans, most notably those close to the White House, are keeping their distance. Pharmaceutical magnate Mark Chapin Johnson, a member of President Bush's elite Team 100 group of major donors, said it makes no sense to mount a Davis recall in the midst of the state budget crisis.
"A lot of this is just a bunch of frustrated people who couldn't get it right in the first place trying to do it all over again," said Johnson, the chief fund-raiser for Richard Riordan's failed bid for governor.
Gerald Parsky, Bush's top California political advisor, said he would stay focused on the president's reelection campaign. "Any recall effort will have to be up to the voters of California, and I will not be involved, given my priority," he said.
California Republicans suffered their worst defeat in more than a century in the November election. For the first time since 1882, Democrats won every statewide office. The wipeout was especially embarrassing to Republicans, in light of the party's successes elsewhere in the country.
Some Republicans see a Davis recall as a path back to power. In an open letter to state party leaders, outgoing Chairman Shawn Steel called it "a natural unifier for our party." A recall, he wrote, would "reinvigorate our grass-root activism" and "make California a more attractive territory for the 2004 election."
Bill Back and Duff Sundheim, the main candidates vying to succeed Steel as chairman, have taken up the cause. Back said the party should pay activists a bounty to collect recall petition signatures -- a device to keep them "fired up and motivated."
"Gov. Davis has been a bit of a disaster for this state," Back said.
For Davis, a recall threat seems remote. But it could quickly become real and immediate if organizers raise the $2 million or more that experts believe they need to gather signatures necessary to get it on the ballot. Supporters would have to collect nearly 900,000 signatures of registered voters in 160 days; they hope to start Saturday. If they succeed, a special election could be called as soon as this fall.
History suggests a recall is unlikely. Every California governor since Edmund G. Brown in 1960 has faced at least one recall attempt. In every case, organizers fell short of the number of needed signatures.
Davis, though, is a relatively unpopular governor mired in a budget crisis; he faces a torrent of opposition to his plans to raise taxes by $8 billion and cut spending by about $20 billion. He was reelected 15 weeks ago despite widespread misgivings among voters about his leadership--most of all about his handling of California's energy crisis, polls found.
Last week, Davis branded the recall effort as a plot by "right-wing politicians" to overturn an election that he said he won fair and square against Republican Bill Simon Jr., 47% to 42%.
A Davis advisor who spoke on condition of anonymity said the recall was not high on the governor's radar screen, but that he was taking it seriously nonetheless. "In the end, this will be seen for what it is, and that's a Republican power grab," the advisor said. "If they want to make this a fight, it will be a partisan battle, it will be pretty bloody, and we will win."
Recall organizers agree their effort could be doomed if voters see it as a Republican assault on Davis. Yet both of the competing recall campaigns are dominated by Republicans, and neither has any Democratic support.
One recall drive was launched Feb. 5 by Steel, the state party chairman; state Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy (R-Monrovia); conservative radio talk show host Melanie Morgan; and anti-tax advocate Ted Costa. They plan to raise money through the People's Advocate anti-tax group led by Costa. Their chief strategist is Mark Abernathy, the chief political advisor to Rep. Bill Thomas of Bakersfield, a top Republican in Congress. Also advising the team is GOP consultant Wayne C. Johnson.