For all the talk of California as a sanctuary for Democrats, the state's voters defied that image once again this week as they overwhelmingly reelected a Republican as governor and a Democrat as U.S. senator.
Countering the state's recent Democratic drift, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and fellow Republican insurance commissioner candidate Steve Poizner clobbered their opponents, surviving with ease a national wave of GOP losses.
At the same time, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and five other Democrats won statewide races, several of them by huge margins.
Combined, the results fit California voters' long history of hopping back and forth between candidates of both major parties, selecting the most centrist candidates. Their nonideological independent streak has grown more pronounced in recent years, with 19% of the state's voters no longer affiliated with either party, up from 15% four years ago.
California's libertarian tradition also showed in Tuesday's balloting. Voters rejected the same abortion limits that they turned down a year ago (a parental notification rule for minors), and they spurned every social conservative on the Republican ticket.
Indeed, the Republican governor whom voters so warmly embraced (Schwarzenegger beat Democratic rival Phil Angelides by 56% to 39%, according to preliminary returns) stands largely in sync with Democrats on abortion, gay rights, the environment and more.
"This should put to bed forever the idea that a socially conservative Republican can win here," said Tony Quinn, an election analyst for the California Target Book campaign guide. "This is very much a centrist state."
The voters' verdict on ballot measures was clear -- no to taxes, yes to debt. Upholding a tradition they set in the Proposition 13 tax revolt of 1978, Californians nixed four proposals to raise taxes -- even as they passed immense borrow-now-pay-later bonds for highways and other construction projects.
Californians see state government as "a bottomless hole" of wasted money, Republican strategist Wayne Johnson said. But when weighing bond proposals, they say, "At least we're going to get some bricks and mortar, at least we're going to get some asphalt. At least we know what it's going for."
As for the candidates, Tuesday's results showed the crucial role of personal image and money in California elections.
In a vast state where television exposure is essential for statewide candidates, Schwarzenegger's fame and bold personality gave him a huge advantage over a suit-and-tie opponent routinely described, even by admirers, as nerdy. Angelides, a Sacramento insider whose political ties led to a lucrative career in real estate, looked on television every bit the state treasurer that he is.
"He's not remotely telegenic," said former Schwarzenegger political strategist Don Sipple, echoing remarks by many Angelides supporters. "He just has an off-putting persona -- kind of an air of superiority, a stridency -- a lot of characteristics that people just don't react well to."
Negative personal image also played a part in the Democrats' other big defeat in California: Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante's loss of the insurance commissioner job to Poizner. Bustamante's legal improprieties with campaign money in the 2003 gubernatorial recall made him "damaged goods," especially in a race for the job that Republican Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush was forced to quit in a scandal six years ago.
"That was probably the worst seat for him to run for," Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin said.
The margin (Poizner beat the Democrat, 51% to 39%, with more than 10% favoring other candidates) suggests that Bustamante's TV ads highlighting the rotund lieutenant governor's weight loss failed to build voter confidence in his qualifications to regulate insurers.
Money was a major factor too. Poizner, a Silicon Valley businessman who founded a company that developed satellite technology to pinpoint cellphone users, spent about $11 million of his personal wealth on the campaign, much of it on ads slamming Bustamante, who spent $1.5 million.
Surveying their two losses on Wednesday morning, Democrats cited heavy spending by Poizner and Schwarzenegger that their rivals lacked the wherewithal to match.
"It was a constant barrage of attack ads, especially on Cruz," state Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres said at a candidate victory celebration Wednesday morning in Oakland. "Unless you have the money to rebut those attack ads, that's what's going to stick with the voters."
Still, three Democrats romped to victory Tuesday: Feinstein, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown in the race for attorney general, and state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, who was elected treasurer.