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Angry Local Voters Could Be Key to Defeating Davis

In 2002, Davis got less than 35% of the O.C. vote, his worst showing in any big county. And his standing has sunk even lower.

September 07, 2003|John J. Pitney Jr. | John J. Pitney Jr. is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

If the recall election is a war, then Orange County is a major battlefield. About 9% of the state's registered voters live in the county. And because of its high turnout, it usually accounts for an even bigger share of the total statewide vote.

Despite old stereotypes, the GOP cannot always depend on the Golden Orange to deliver huge margins. In the 1998 gubernatorial race and the 2000 U.S. Senate race, Republican candidates barely won 50% of the county's vote. This anemic showing doomed their chances of offsetting the Democratic edge in the big city to the north.

But local Republicans think they smell Gray Davis' blood (in this case, it may be formaldehyde). In 2002, Davis got less than 35% of the Orange County vote, his worst showing in any big county. And his standing has sunk even lower. To most area residents, the words "Gray Davis" are about as welcome as "jackknifed big-rig on the Riverside Freeway."

Davis isn't too popular anywhere in the county these days, but the dislike has a special bite along the coast. The value of a vehicle determines the license fee, so when Davis tripled it, the biggest increases fell on the owners of luxury cars. Therefore, if you have the misfortune to resemble Gray Davis, avoid the mean streets of Newport Beach. BMW drivers might pelt you with jars of Grey Poupon.

Such hard feelings should be an advantage for Arnold Schwarzenegger. As the big guy himself put it in "Terminator 3": "Anger is more useful than despair." And he seems to be making some headway. Soon after he announced he was running, he got the endorsement of the Lincoln Club, a local group of Republican business leaders.

He's getting serious campaign contributions despite the candidacy of Laguna Beach resident Peter Ueberroth. But that makes sense. Members of the county's business elite may know and respect their neighbor, but they'd rather be in a photograph with Schwarzenegger. Think about it: Could any of them impress their 12-year-old son by getting an autograph from a 1980s baseball commissioner?

Laguna Beach, however, is also the origin of a major problem for Schwarzenegger. Shortly after signing on as a campaign advisor, Warren E. Buffett suggested that Proposition 13 needs reform. As an example, he cited the relatively low taxes on property that he owns in the community.

Oops. With its high rate of homeownership (61%) and steep housing costs, Orange County is touchy about property taxation. Local residents see Proposition 13 the way seniors view Social Security. Even if reform proposals seem to make sense on paper, any major change looks risky to people living on the front line. Accordingly, Schwarzenegger had to reaffirm his support for Proposition 13, but only after the flap had given an opening to conservative candidate Tom McClintock.

Could McClintock win the hearts and minds of the local GOP? Buffett may have created doubts about Schwarzenegger among economic conservatives. And stories about Arnold's 1970s "extracurricular" activities may put off some social conservatives.

But unless the tabloids deliver true bombshells about Schwarzenegger's past, McClintock probably will run behind in Orange County.

Local conservative guru Hugh Hewitt voiced a widespread belief when he wrote that McClintock has little chance of outpolling Cruz Bustamante. Schwarzenegger, said Hewitt, is "the most conservative candidate who has the most realistic chance of winning." The major question about McClintock is whether he will tip the election to Bustamante by splitting the GOP vote.

The lieutenant governor has little chance of carrying the county, but he can't ignore it, either. A key selling point is the prospect of electing California's first Latino governor since Romualdo Pacheco in 1875. Santa Ana is the state's most heavily Latino major city and could be a big source of votes for Bustamante.

Generating turnout will be crucial. Dislike for Davis is stoking the recall, so Democrats need something to spark fury on their side. Davis is trying to demonize the recall process as a right-wing plot. That approach won't work for Bustamante. He can't get voters equally passionate about electing a Latino and rejecting the very measure that would make that outcome possible. It's like trying to sell double cheeseburgers and starvation diets all in one ad.

Instead, Bustamante is trying to stir anger by linking Schwarzenegger to Pete Wilson and Proposition 187, which would have denied public services to illegal immigrants. Also look for him to keep attacking Proposition 54. That's the initiative on the Oct. 7 ballot to forbid the state from classifying people by race or ethnicity.

The result of the election may hinge on which side can create and exploit the greatest amount of rage. And many of the angriest votes may well come from Orange County.

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