How Partisan will Arnold be this fall?

by Tony Quinn
Aug. 27, 2004
It’s now choosing time for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Since his inauguration last November there have been two Arnolds: the “bipartisan (Democratic Arnold) who is influenced by his wife, Maria Shriver, and his friends from his acting career; and the “Republican Arnold,” who looks to many veterans of the Gov. Pete Wilson Administration for policy guidance.

For quite a while, the Democratic Arnold seemed to be in ascendancy. He adopted a basically Democratic approach to settling the old debt, and Democrats were the biggest backers of his bond and spending cap proposals in the March primary, Proposition 57 and 58. As the budget progressed, Schwarzenegger compromised more and more with Democratic interests.

Then something interesting happened. The budget got bogged down, Republicans revolted against some of his deals and the governor looked to his Democratic allies to give him some help and some cover to get the budget done on time. They failed to come through, and suddenly Schwarzenegger felt betrayed by his erstwhile allies.

That led to a reappearance of the Republican Arnold. Republicans, after all, were the ones who elected him governor and his base is among GOP voters where he is extremely popular. Since the Legislature adjourned, he has sided with GOP lawmakers in vetoing a number of bills they did not like.

But most importantly, the governor now seems committed to helping his GOP allies increase their numbers in the Legislature. In the State Senate, he has already made an appearance with Gary Podesto, the Republican mayor of Stockton who is running against State Sen. Mike Machado (D-Linden). He is likely to help former State Sen. Larry Stirling win back his old seat in San Diego, and he will help Republicans hold open GOP seats.

However, the Assembly races are where the governor’s influence could be the greatest. The California Target Book has identified 14 Assembly districts that could be “in play” this fall. This includes three that Republicans hold: Guy Houston in Contra Costa County, Shirley Horton in San Diego and Bonnie Garcia in the Imperial Valley. He has already campaign for all three of these incumbents.

Eleven of the 14 seats have Democratic incumbents and several include contests where popular Democratic incumbents are termed out. There are open Democratic seats in Long Beach, Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa, Fresno, Palo Alto, Torrance, and San Diego where the GOP has strong candidates, and Schwarzenegger has already made endorsements in all these races. He is also endorsing Republican challengers to Assemblywoman Nicole Parra in Bakersfield, Barbara Mathews in Stockton, Gloria Negrete McLeod in Pomona, and Carol Liu in Pasadena. In all, Schwarzenegger has endorsed 11 GOP challengers for Democratic seats.

But endorsements are one thing, putting your prestige on the line is another. Will Schwarzenegger make radio and TV spots for these candidates, will he sign tough letters attacking their opponents, and will he be in these districts making a personal appeal to the voters? These are unanswered questions, but they will test the depth of his commitment to increasing Republican numbers in the Legislature.

The key, however, is drawing a contrast with the Democrats who run the show, and many Republicans believe Schwarzenegger has been far too palsy walsy with them, so drawing the contrast is more difficult. He would have to become the “Arnold of the broom”, promising a clean sweep, and make the Democratic-controlled legislature the issue as he did in the recall campaign.

One way of doing this is to make his Performance Review recommendations a real factor in the elections. Although they have attracted little attention so far, these recommendations do “blow up the boxes of government” as he promised in his State of the State speech. They also take on huge and important Democratic constituencies who will fight them tooth and nail.

A partisan Arnold will have more problems with the Democrats in future legislative sessions, and they will still be in control. There is little likelihood the Democrats will approve controversial items in the Performance Review report, so perhaps it really won’t matter how mad he makes them.

Then there is the further risk in that Republicans appear to have a weak top of the ticket this year. If President Bush loses California to Sen. John Kerry by the same margin that he lost it to Vice President Gore in 2000, GOP legislative candidates are going to need a whopping amount of ticket splitting. Republicans have lost seats in the Legislature in every presidential year since 1984, especially in the past three presidential elections where Democrats have scored big wins at the top. So Arnold could end up a loser no matter how much he campaigns for GOP legislative candidates.

All these considerations will weigh on Gov. Schwarzenegger and his political team as they assess the lay of the land in the last weeks of the campaign. But as he learned long ago as a body builder; where there is no pain there is no gain.

Tony Quinn is co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of California legislative and congressional elections.

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