Dan Walters: Is this 1994 redux?

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Dan Walters: Is this 1994 redux? An unpopular governor looks for an ugly win
By Dan Walters -- Bee Columnist
Published 2:15 a.m. PDT Tuesday, July 16, 2002
It's very difficult to unseat a political officeholder, even one who is less than universally beloved or even respected.

Successfully challenging an incumbent is, essentially, a two-stage process. First, a majority of voters must become disenchanted enough to entertain the notion of an ouster. And then the challenger must sell himself or herself as a plausible replacement while steering the campaign into a referendum on the incumbent's record. If one fails in either stage, even an unpopular incumbent will win.

A classic of the syndrome is what happened, or didn't happen, in 1994 when an unpopular governor of California, Republican Pete Wilson, sought a second term.

Wilson's first term had been plagued with a series of natural and man-made crises of almost biblical proportions -- floods, fires, earthquakes, race riots and the worst recession in a half-century, to name only the most obvious. The disasters created a negative political climate and Wilson's handling of them -- coupled with his own less-than-magnetic personality -- dropped his popularity into the danger zone.

Kathleen Brown, state treasurer, daughter of one governor and sister of another, won the Democratic nomination. She was seen as such a formidable challenger that some national media were already speculating about her presidential prospects, assuming that she would oust Wilson easily. But Brown never got beyond stage one and was buried in a landslide because Wilson, a tough and experienced campaigner, diverted attention away from himself. He championed a popular, if controversial ballot measure to eliminate public services to undocumented immigrants and attacked Brown relentlessly on, among other things, her opposition to the death penalty.

As it happens, California has another unpopular governor seeking re-election this year in Democrat Gray Davis. If anything, Davis may be in worse shape with California voters this year than Wilson was in 1994, with well under half of voters either approving of his performance or inclined to re-elect him. And once again, it has been his handling of crises -- especially the state energy crisis -- that turned off voters.

As Davis seeks a second term, however, the parallels between his situation and Wilson's eight years ago don't stop with the incumbent's seeming vulnerability. Just as Brown never got past stage one, so Davis' Republican rival, businessman Bill Simon, seems to be stuck in first gear -- unable to present a consistent, coherent argument why his replacing Davis would make Californians happier. And, like Brown, Simon continues to leave himself wide open to hostile definition.

A Field Poll released last week underscored Simon's quandary. While California voters, the poll found, are no more inclined to like, trust or re-elect Davis than they were a year ago -- less so, in fact -- he continues to lead Simon simply because they are getting bad vibes from the challenger, thanks to his own miscues and a drumbeat of negative ads from the Davis camp.

It goes back to the fundamentals of a successful campaign to unseat an unpopular incumbent. The officeholder loses if the election is a referendum on him; but he wins re-election if he can plant enough suspicions about the challenger to make voters mistrust him. Davis, with his robotic public demeanor, cannot make himself popular, but he certainly can make himself the lesser of two evils by shredding Simon. And Simon seems to be doing his utmost to make it easy.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Simon is one of a number of people who participated in offshore tax shelters that the Internal Revenue Service believes may be illegal. Unto itself, it doesn't severely damage Simon, but coming after months of revelations about corporate misbehavior and after Simon had refused to release his tax returns, the news was a severe body blow. Simon not only looks as if he has something to hide, but it makes him, rather than Davis, the issue.

Brown went into investment banking after her humiliating loss to Wilson in 1994. Simon came from investment banking, and if he can't get himself ready for prime-time politics, he's headed back to that career in a few months. Davis, like Wilson, would be perfectly satisfied with an ugly win based on his opponent's shortcomings.
 
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