There have already been plenty of surprises in the ongoing contest to become the next governor of California, and chances are there will be plenty more.
For 2010 marks the first campaign since 1998 with no incumbent involved, and that situation always invites the unexpected. No one guessed in 1998, for instance, that the underfunded Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, who spent less than $7 million in the primary, would triple the vote of Northwest Airlines mogul Al Checchi, who spent $39 million?
Or that state Attorney General Dan Lungren, who drew 34 percent of the vote in winning the Republican primary, would end up with just 4 percent more in the November runoff, losing to Davis by a whopping 57-38 percent margin?
One of this year’s surprises has been the emergence of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom as a serious candidate. Previously best known around the state for legalizing gay marriage early in his first term at City Hall, Newsom later became notorious for an affair with his best friend’s wife, which ended barely a year before he married a movie starlet.
Another surprise was the lackluster showing of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in his city’s early March election, when he could net just 55 percent of the vote in a reelection bid against several minor league candidates who lacked money, name recognition and any background in government. The 45 percent tally for those opponents demonstrated that Villaraigosa’s base in his own city might not be strong enough for him to mount a solid campaign for governor.
Villaraigosa surprised again when local media revealed his affair with a TV news reporter, his second such involvement in two years. The first broke up his 20-year marriage.
Then there was stunningly straight talk from current Attorney General Jerry Brown, the ex-governor who plainly wants another shot at the job. “There’s a lot of potential for failure,” Brown allowed, saying there are no easy answers to California’s fiscal problems, “just pain.”
A far cry from the usual happy talk heard on the campaign trail.
And there was the dropout of Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, now running hard for a soon-to-be vacated seat in Congress that looks like a far easier goal for him to reach than the governor’s office.
Getting less attention is Jack O’Connell, the state school superintendent also in the running. He could still pull some surprises, but not likely. None of these leading Democrats has much money of his own to toss into the campaign, a major shift from 2006, when two wealthy Democrats contested the nomination and one eventually lost to Schwarzenegger.
But there are two zillionaires on the Republican side in Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and former eBay head Meg Whitman.
Either could make the sums spent by Checchi and Jane Harman ($14.4 million) in the 1998 Democratic race won by Davis seem paltry.
But the Checchi example, plus those of past self-financed candidates like Michael Huffington (Senate, 1992), Norton Simon (Senate, 1970), Steve Westly (governor, 2006) and William Matson Roth (Senate, 1974), haunts them both.
Poizner hopes that holding state office for four years prior to the next vote gives him a leg up on his rivals. But that didn’t help Westly, who was state controller before his failed run.
If there’s a Davis-like shock on tap for the big-bucks Republicans in this race, it might come from Tom Campbell, the former Silicon Valley congressman, Stanford law professor, UC Berkeley business school dean and state budget director.
Like Davis, Campbell has run for statewide office before, so his name is familiar to many voters. Like Davis, he’s counting on voters to favor experience when they contemplate the problems facing the next governor.
Campbell lacks substantial funds, but could surprise as the campaign moves along, especially if the extreme conservatives who dominate most Republican primaries split between his two big-money rivals. Or if one or both make serious mistakes. Whitman already made one faux pas, coming out against the state’s initiative system, a rookie political error.
Ordinarily, a Democrat might be favored as the ultimate winner from this large field. But, says Bob Mulholland, chief campaign adviser for the state Democratic Party, “When you’ve got two billionaires, you can expect a competitive race.”
Then there’s the wild card, Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. She now says she’s unlikely to enter the lists, but doesn’t fully rule herself out. If she does run, look for substantial reshuffling as other Democrats settle for lesser offices. A Feinstein candidacy would surprise most Democrats, especially after she pulled back from the 1998 race partly because of “the difficulty of campaigning” and the “deteriorated nature of California campaigns.” They certainly have not gotten easier or cleaner in the intervening 11 years.
But in this year of political surprises, Feinstein might pull the biggest one yet. If she does, she’ll be the overwhelming favorite from the moment she gets in, billionaire opponent or not.