This is a story about the most-oppressed minorities in American politics: California Republicans and Texas Democrats. Increasingly, California and Texas are becoming one-party states. In California, Democrats control all but one statewide elected office. In Texas, Republicans control them all. California voted Democratic in the past three presidential elections. Texas has gone Republican in the last six presidential contests.
This year, both states have gubernatorial elections. And beleaguered California Republicans and Texas Democrats are pinning their hopes on the outcome of those races.
"Now let's see," California Republican strategists said. "To beat Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, we need a wealthy candidate with strong support in the vote-rich Los Angeles area who can appeal to moderates and Democrats." In other words, they wanted someone like former Los Angeles Mayor Dick Riordan. "I am the only candidate capable of beating Gray Davis," Riordan claimed. "He is the enemy of the state."
"Now let's see," Texas Democratic strategists said. "To beat Republican Gov. Rick Perry, we need a wealthy candidate who can get the minority vote out while appealing to conservatives and Republicans." So, they wanted someone like Laredo businessman Tony Sanchez. "As governor," Sanchez said in a television ad, "I'll protect Texas values, cut waste, keep taxes down, help businesses create jobs, and bring better accountability to education."
For California Republicans, Riordan represented the "moderate" strategy: When you get desperate, reach for the center. The White House signed on to that strategy.
Brilliant, except for one thing: Riordan needed to win the GOP primary in order to reach the general election contest. On March 5, he got thrashed by an opponent who questioned Riordan's Republican credentials. The candidate who beat Riordan, Bill Simon, ran an ad pointing out, "Dick Riordan has called Bill Clinton the greatest leader of the free world."
But Davis may have been the real winner of the GOP primary. The Democratic governor spent more than $10 million running ads calling Riordan a phony. "For years, Riordan helped finance the anti-abortion movement and said abortion was 'murder,' " one Davis ad asserted. "Now he says he's pro-choice."
Riordan defended himself with this tag line, "Dick Riordan, the Republican Gray Davis fears the most." Well, not any more. A GOP primary electorate in which 60 percent of the voters were conservatives doomed Riordan, exit polling shows. Conservatives voted 3-to-1 for Simon.
The outcome of the GOP primary in California has Democrats gloating. Davis got to pick his challenger and embarrass the White House. Davis's game plan is to make the November election a referendum on his opponent. "Bill Simon is a true-blue think-tank conservative," the governor said at a victory rally on primary night. "I am a practical problem solver."
Simon has another idea: Remember who's governor. "The issue in this election is really going to be Gray Davis's leadership," Simon said after the primary. He reminded Republicans of what happened back in 1966: Democrats celebrated when a neophyte conservative beat the moderate mayor of San Francisco for the GOP nomination. Democrats felt sure that California would never elect a right-winger, Ronald Reagan. But the election turned out to be a referendum on the incumbent, Pat Brown, who was in trouble after race riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles and student protests shook up Berkeley.
The 1966 comparison raises two questions. Is Gray Davis in as much trouble as Pat Brown was? And is Bill Simon another Ronald Reagan?
Meanwhile, in Texas, Democratic candidate Tony Sanchez turns out to have been a George W. Bush "Pioneer," who raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Bush's presidential campaign. In a March 1 debate, Sanchez declared, "Having supported one Republican does not make me a Republican." Sanchez won the March 12 primary—against a fellow Hispanic opponent, Dan Morales.
Sanchez is the linchpin of Texas Democrats' minority strategy. Their idea is to put together a dream ticket: Sanchez, a Hispanic, for governor; former state Controller John Sharp, an Anglo, for lieutenant governor; and former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, an African-American, for the U.S. Senate. Kirk is one of two candidates in next month's runoff for the Democratic Senate nomination. The dream is to see an outpouring of black and Hispanic voters in November that can restore the Democrats to power.
The Democrats' minority strategy became an issue in the Texas primary campaign. It was attacked by Sanchez's Hispanic opponent, who said: "I have been troubled by my opponent's campaign. It's fair to say it's a race-based campaign, designed to divide Texans by race, by ethnicity, and by language."
But what happens in November? A strategy of mobilizing the minority vote sounds smart, but polarizing the electorate would be dumb, because it could end up driving up turnout among voters on the other side.
Both California Republicans and Texas Democrats are playing the game of Survivor. Surviving in a hostile environment requires desperate measures.