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California Primary Bucks the Trend

In Tuesday’s California primary elections, the state bucked the trend elsewhere where conservative candidates have been ascendant. The two big GOP nomination races, for governor and U.S. senator, were won easily by Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina. They both trounced more conservative rivals in elections marked by surprisingly low turnout in this year of the tea party. The primary reason: money.

Whitman flooded a primary opponent who sought to reduce California’s sky-high taxes on businesses and individuals. She committed an estimated $71 million of her own funds. Fiorina, who spent at estimated $5 million of a personal fortune, amassed 57 percent of the vote and easily defeated conservative state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, a west coast version of Florida’s Marco Rubio, and fiscally conservative former Congressman Tom Campbell.

Neither woman can claim to be a movement conservative. Both notably failed even to vote in a number of key elections in years past—a rather minimal hurdle to demonstrate interest in the way California and the U.S. are governed.

Is this a rebuke of tea party brand conservatism that seeks to restore limited government? No—it is more about the institutional and other challenges faced by conservatives in California, as well as other eccentricities of the races.

The combination of the expense required to introduce oneself to California’s massive electorate and the relative absence of conservative institutions to serve as an alternative to paid media make it hard for non-billionaires in the GOP. This is made worse by campaign finance regulations at the state and federal level, including those enacted by the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act. By limiting contributions from others, candidates who can write their own campaigns large checks have an immense advantage. One result is a U.S. Senate and other leadership positions increasingly filled by mega-millionaires.

California also still lacks conservative institutions, think tanks and media outlets with statewide reach. The power of party organizations in California has historically been limited, again creating an opening for candidates who can self-finance.


The seeming inevitability of victories by Whiman and Fiorina helped prevent the excitement and high turnout that has been seen in other states in this primary season, even among Republicans. However, voters did make their unease with more big government apparent in other races on Tuesday. They shot down a ballot initiative that would have brought back taxpayer-funded campaigns (an even worse alternative to the current system). In liberal-leaning Los Angeles County, voters defeated a measure to saddle taxpayers with an even larger burden to throw more money at LA’s education bureaucracy.

Fiorina now faces incumbent liberal Senator Barbara Boxer, who is vulnerable given votes for the government takeover of healthcare, the Wall Street bailout and the pork-laden “stimulus” bill that dramatically enlarged national debt. Boxer has consistently been below the 50% level of support, which puts any incumbent in peril.

Whitman faces a tougher opponent in former Governor Jerry Brown. Brown would be prevented from seeking a third term had he not served as governor before the current term limit law passed. The 72-year-old liberal succeeded Ronald Reagan in the statehouse, serving from 1975 to 1983, and leaving with a reputation of incompetence that gave him the nickname “Governor Moonbeam.”

A consummate career politician, Brown has since run for president, served as mayor of the city of Oakland and is currently attorney general. That Brown has been able to return and secure the Democratic nomination in this anti-incumbent election cycle is a testament both to Democrats’ lackluster bench and of Brown’s sheer ruthlessness. Indeed, Whitman will need to be careful not to underestimate Brown’s capacity for smash-mouth politics.

Brown has used his job as attorney general as a convenient perch from which to wage legal warfare on his political opponents and other targets of opportunity. He sought populist glory in attacking Wall Street via trumped up charges against Moody’s, a ratings agency that committed the sin of being profitable, and has tilted investigations to the advantage of ACORN. He has attacked construction companies on behalf of unions. Brown is also waging ‘lawfare’ against a major Southern California property developer, Jeff Burum, who is an ally of Whitman and one of her earliest boosters.

The standard advice to candidates like Whitman and Fiorina now that they have won their GOP primaries is to tack left to win the general election in November. This is unwise and too simplistic. It would be better to offer Californians distinct choices in the way their interests are represented in Sacramento and Washington. California’s unemployment rate stands at 12.6%, well above the already high national rate of 9.7%, thanks to anti-business liberalism. The state’s finances remain a mess, with out-of-control spending and colossal unfunded liabilities thanks to sweetheart deals with public employees unions. Cities like Los Angeles face possible bankruptcy. 

This is an opportunity for Republicans to make the case clearly and without apology for economic conservatism that cuts the reach of government, rather than attempting merely to run government better. While not tea party candidates, the two former CEOs could benefit by taking a page from the tea party agenda that has appealed to so many moderates and conservatives this year.
Christian Whiton was an official in the George W. Bush administration.

Christian Whiton is the president of the Hamilton Foundation.  He was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration and a policy advisor on the Giuliani and Gingrich presidential campaigns. He is author of “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War” (Potomac Books 2013). 

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