LOS ANGELES—It was a very bad night for President Bush and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Voters seemed to be sending the president and the governor of the nation's largest state the same message: Don't divide us.
The Republican losses in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races were a stern rebuke to Bush. In New Jersey, the incumbent Democrats were plagued with corruption problems dating back to the sensational exits of Sen. Robert Torricelli in 2002 and Gov. Jim McGreevey in 2004. Virginia has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1964.
Bush was an issue in both states. Sen. Jon Corzine, the Democratic nominee for governor of New Jersey, made a point of linking his Republican opponent to Bush. Meanwhile, in Virginia, Bush showed up on the last night of the campaign to try to rally voters for Republican nominee Jerry Kilgore, thereby putting the White House's influence to the test. Bush failed that test.
Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, the victorious Democrat in Virginia, claimed the governorship with 52 percent of the vote. And because Kaine won with more than a majority, Republicans cannot blame Kilgore's defeat on the fact that another Republican was also on the ballot, running as an independent. Kaine got more votes than both Republican candidates combined.
The Virginia outcome was also a victory for Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, who was barred from running for re-election by Virginia's one-term limit. Warner campaigned for his successor, who ran on the record of the "Warner-Kaine administration." Warner's huge popularity clearly boosted Kaine. It also boosted Warner's prospects as a likely 2008 presidential candidate.
In California, Schwarzenegger suffered a huge setback. His name was not on the ballot, but it was Schwarzenegger who called the special election and put four measures on the ballot. All four lost.
California's special election turned into a referendum on the governor. How could it not? After all, it was his election. And he went into it with a job-approval rating of just 33 percent in a survey conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California.
In a Los Angeles Times poll taken a week before the election, 44 percent of California voters said they intended to vote "no" on all four Schwarzenegger initiatives—a bloc vote of "no confidence" in the governor. Only 22 percent indicated they intended to vote for all four measures.
One of Schwarzenegger's initiatives had clear national implications: Proposition 77 would have changed California's system for redrawing congressional and state legislative districts by shifting that power from state lawmakers to a panel of retired judges. Redistricting reform aims to make Congress more responsive to the people. It's almost impossible to defeat members of the U.S. House these days: 98 percent of those who ran for re-election last year won. Only 10 congressional districts out of 435 changed parties. For the vast majority of voters around the country, elections for Congress are not competitive. The politicians have hand-picked their voters by deciding who lives in which district.
So things rarely change, especially in California. "Out of 153 [state] legislative and congressional seats, none of them changed party" in 2004, Schwarzenegger complained at a rally in September. "Think about that for a second. None of them changed party, because the system is rigged."
Schwarzenegger aimed to change all that with Proposition 77. But the voters rejected it. Don't they want to take power away from the politicians? Congressional scholar Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution said, "I think there's a suspicion about what's going on here, and who may actually win from it." California voters seemed to be worried that Prop 77 was a power-grab by an unpopular Republican governor who has spent the past year at war with the state's Democratic-controlled Legislature.
In a Field Poll last month, only 36 percent of California voters said that Schwarzenegger's call for a special election was driven by a sincere desire to bring about needed reforms. Fifty-one percent called the move "an attempt to strengthen his own political position and that of his political allies." In other words, a power-grab.
Schwarzenegger got elected in 2003 as a problem solver who could bridge the partisan divide—as a uniter, not a divider, to use the Bush 2000 campaign theme. Bush himself, who had accumulated a huge supply of political capital after 9/11, spent it all on the war in Iraq, a conflict that continues to tear the country apart.
In his first year as governor, Schwarzenegger reached out to Democrats and independents, and he achieved breakthrough reforms. This year, however, he decided to spend his big supply of political capital in a divisive confrontation with public employee unions and the Legislature. The voters handed him his head in the special election.
On Election Night, Schwarzenegger was singing a new tune. "I recognize that we also need more bipartisan cooperation to make it all happen, and I promise to deliver that," he told supporters. "We need change," the governor added, "but the people of California are sick and tired of all the fighting."
Schwarzenegger learned that lesson the hard way. He was the one who started the fight.