Why It’s Nuts for Dems to Want a Primary Fight


jerrydianneAfter San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom dropped out of the Democratic race for governor, leaving Attorney General Jerry Brown as the only (still-unannounced) candidate for the nomination, some folks on the left and others in the party immediately started complaining that an uncontested race would hurt their cause.

“A contested primary will only make Brown a stronger candidate should he indeed win that primary — and more importantly, it would give Democrats and DTS voters a chance to weigh in on the future of California, to have a real discussion about how to fix a broken state,” wrote the normally level-headed Robert Cruickshank over at Calitics.

“If Brown faced a more progressive challenger, he would have to clarify his positions on key issues facing the state, instead of keeping them under wraps until August 2010. A primary battle will help him keep not just his name, but his vision before the voters of California,” wrote the Oracle of Cruickshank.

Our pal Steve Maviglio at from California Majority Report, stoked the issue, writing in Capitol Morning Report, that “over the weekend, there’s already been some noise in Democratic circles about possible challengers and murmurs of an Anybody-But-Jerry movement that could prevent a Brown coronation next June.”

Former Chronsman John Wildermuth and current Chron pol writer Carla Marinucci both wrote stories trying to drum up some interest in a new candidate (and a spicier story). Of course, all the names dropped into the mix – Bob Hertzberg, Jane Harman, Loretta Sanchez, Maria Shriver, John Doerr, Antonio Villaraigosa, yada yada yada – were nothing more than crapchurn.

Our friend Harold Meyerson, a very bright guy, got himself swept away worrying that a free shot for Crusty the General would be a black mark on California’s political systejm, ferchrissake.

And the ByGodLATimes and some very smart poli sci profs at USC are so hot for a contest, that when Prince Gavin dropped out of the race half-way through their six-day poll, they cooked up a wildly loaded question to prove that Democratic voters aren’t satisfied with Brown as their candidate.

As you may have heard, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom dropped out of the race to become the Democratic candidate for governor on Friday, leaving former Governor Jerry Brown as the only major political figure seeking the Democratic nomination. Are you satisfied with Brown as the only major figure seeking the nomination or do you think it is important for Democratic voters to have additional choices in who to nominate to be the Democratic candidate for governor?

Note the “only major political figure,” followed by “only major figure” followed by “additional choices.” With the question worded that way, it’s astonishing that about a third of the Democratic primary voters said they were satisfied while only 65% said it’s important to have more choices.  Democrats always want more choices. Who’s gonna be against more choices when Jerry Brown is the ONLY major political figure seeking the nomination?

At the same time, as Dan Schnur at USC noted Sunday, it is true that Crusty the General’s favorable is about 64% among Democrats. So it’s not as if they don’t like the guy – especially the older voters who are likely to participate in the 2010 primary.

Truth is, the only person who could realistically get into the race right now would be U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein Herself. And although Former Assembly Ayatollah and SF Mayor Willie Brown is frantically pushing Difi, all good Calbuzz readers know that’s not gonna happen.

Now while Calbuzz has no horse in the race,  on either side, and though we’d dearly love a Dem horse race to write about, we do have a penetrating analytical question to ask those Democrats who want a competitive primary: “Are you out of your friggin’ minds?”

You have the ideal situation right now, tactically and strategically, and you want to screw it up? What are you – Democrats?

petewilsonConsider Exhibit A – 1990 — when U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson was begged by California Republicans to come back and run for governor because they were convinced there was nobody at home who could beat then S.F. Mayor Dianne Feinstein or Attorney General John Van de Kamp..

Wilson stepped into the breach, with no need to run a primary campaign. “It allowed us to position Pete for general election—pro-choice, anti-offshore drilling—two incredibly important symbols of moderation, AND we were able to hold our resources and our fire for DiFi in June, with an entire campaign planned from June to November,” recalled Don Sipple, Wilson’s media strategist.

“If you will recall, it was an off year with GOP controlling White House and we had to buck headwinds at the end,” Sipple remembered. “All of the advantages cited above came into play in order for Pete to squeak out a close win in a tough campaign.”

Ben Tulchin of San Francisco, our Democratic pollster pal who had been keeping a close eye on Newsom’s potential but who had no candidate in the race, agreed: “Jerry Brown needs to save as much money as he can for the general. He’s going to need it because he’s likely going to be facing a billionaire.”

It’s a no-brainer, really: Why would Brown want to be pulled to the left on gay marriage, driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants,  taxes, or whatever? Why would he want to have to kiss ass for the CCPOA, CTA or any other labor union that would extract promises in exchange for money and volunteers? Would he rather spend $10 million in a battle for the nomination or have a pile of cash on hand to go after his GOP rival the day after the election – like Wilson did to Feinstein in 1990? We’re pretty sure we know how media strategist and Brown adviser Joe Trippi would vote on that one.

As Tulchin wrote in a Chronicle op-ed: “Brown and California Democrats can now sit on the sidelines and watch the Republicans beat each other up in what will likely be a nasty and divisive primary fight between well-funded candidates who will spend millions of dollars attacking each other and leaving them in a weaker position for the general election.”

Having run statewide in California for secretary of state, governor, senator, attorney general and president, it’s not as if Brown is a newcomer in the political process. “Even more important,” Willie Brown told us, “He is not a newcomer to the thought process of government.”

But progressives like the Oracle of Cruickshank aren’t convinced. “A contested Democratic gubernatorial primary is essential to not only a strong Democratic campaign in the fall of 2010, but more importantly, to rebuilding the shattered ruins of a once-golden state,” Cruickshank wrote.

To which Jerry Brown replied the other day: “Do you know how many primaries I’ve been through?”

P.S. While the question about more choice in the Democratic primary was bogus, Calbuzz applauds the LA Times and USC for putting together the cash for a series of polls in this political season. With the demise of the LA Times Poll and the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State (which at least half of us worked on), there are too few quality public polls in California beyond the Field Poll and PPIC.  Here’s the link to the current LAT/USC effort. One note to LAT/USC: You need to clear up how your sampling was done. Your methodology story suggests it was a random sample with weighting at the back end. But on the conference call you said it was a cluster sample, which would normally obviate weighting.

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There are 4 comments for this post

  1. avatar Ave7 says:

    I get queasy any time someone argues that less democracy is better than more democracy. It feels like an assault on the basic purpose of an election. (It is within the power of the major parties to cancel the primaries and simply select their candidates at closed conventions, but would that strengthen our democracy?)

    You reached back to 1990 for a rationale, conveniently skipping twenty years of California history. Did expensive, competitive primaries hurt Feinstein or Boxer in 1992? Or did Jerry Brown’s spirited presidential campaign that same year hobble Gov. Clinton’s ascendancy? Two years later Jerry’s sister Kathleen came out of a tough primary far ahead of Pete Wilson (before committing political suicide).

    Four years later, if Democrats had applied your EM+EP=CTF formula (early money+early polling= clear the field), Al Checchi would have been the nominee and Dan Lungren would have been the Governor.

    Far from being the key to victory, this rush to unify behind a candidate in lieu of an actual election has created some of the Democratic Party’s most spectacular failures, from Walter Mondale to Phil Angelidis.

    Perhaps there is some truth to the idea that a competitive primary produces a stronger, better vetted, more focused nominee. Still-Senator McCain might grudgingly agree.

  2. avatar tonyseton says:

    I get queasy when people who lack the ability to govern climb into a race atop their own bankroll and ego. I wonder if our species has evolved to a point where democracy is, in fact, viable. The proof recently, both statewide and nationally, is thin gruel.

  3. avatar thetruthsquad says:

    And the Obama/Clinton primary fight was bad for Democrats too, right?

    As today’s LA Times poll points out, nearly 65 percent of Dems want a primary.

    Jerry Brown is yesterday’s news. And Meg Whitman will eat him for lunch. That’s why Democrats want a primary. Nuts? Nope. Smart? Yes.

  4. avatar gdewar says:

    If it is going to end up being a “Contested primary” like the Battle of the Titans we had in 2006 (please note sarcasm here), with two no names trading petty attacks and blowing bullshit out of proportion, count me out.

    If someone is going to run for Governor in the Democratic primary who actually wants the job and will provide another vision for saving this state from its death spiral into Hell, fine. If anything, it would at least ensure that Brown builds a campaign infrastructure that can deal with the billion dollar boy and girl in the fall.

    However, if we get some yahoo nutjob or some wannabe who wants “more name ID” for another race, fuggedaboutit. I’m tired of Democrats inventing new ways to lose, and I’m tired of my home state being an international example of epic FAIL, and I’d like my state back, please. KTHXBAI.

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