In the wake of Gavin Newsom’s announcement that he was quitting the race for governor, I argued that California, Democrats, and Jerry Brown would be better off with a contested primary. This morning, our friends at Calbuzz took issue with that argument. Labeling me the “Oracle of Cruickshank” they argued that Dems would be “nuts” to want a contested primary:
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?
By “ideal situation” they mean an uncontested primary that enables Brown to hoard his resources until the summer, when he can concentrate his fire on the Republican nominee. According to our friends at Calbuzz, we progressives are crazy to look such a gift horse in the mouth.
Except, as I’ll argue below, it’s not such a gift horse at all. The Calbuzz article, while interesting, doesn’t actually address the core elements of my argument for a contested primary, while offering as its evidence only one out of many gubernatorial races. Now that I’ve had my morning hit of ethylene, I can give you my oracular wisdom.
First, the Calbuzz case against a contested primary:
Consider 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.”
1990 is one possible example of how this election could go. 1998 is another. Gray Davis survived a contested primary against not one but two wealthy opponents (Jane Harman and Al Checchi) and went on to defeat a Republican, Dan Lungren, who had won an essentially uncontested primary. And of course, as I argued in my original post, the Obama-Clinton primary of 2008, which was fought very intensely here in California, wound up playing a key role in motivating and organizing the Democratic base in CA to work to elect Obama in the general election. Obama was a far stronger candidate because of that contested primary.
One of my core arguments, in fact, was that the conditions of the 2010 campaign made a strong case for a contested primary. 2010 isn’t 1990, it’s not 1998, and it’s not 2008. It is an electoral landscape that ought to be assessed on its own merits – merits I believe show the value of a contested primary. Here’s what I had to say about 2010:
As we’re seeing in Virgina and New Jersey gubernatorial races, the deciding factor is whether the Obama voters of 2008 will turn out to elect Democrats in state gubernatorial races. The answer to that question is clear: where the candidate espouses openly progressive positions, as Jon Corzine has begun to do in New Jersey, he has some success in motivating the Obama voters to return to the polls and elect a Democratic governor. Whereas Creigh Deeds couldn’t distance himself from Obama quickly enough and took anti-progressive positions, and now faces a resounding defeat at the hands of a wingnut….
This centrist positioning is the same playbook Brown ran as mayor of Oakland, where he frequently battled progressives. In short, Brown is unlikely to offer the kind of progressive language and policies that are required to drive a favorable turnout in November 2010 to get himself elected.
That argument was at the center of my case for a contested primary – that Brown has to motivate a significant chunk of the 2008 Obama electorate turn out for him in November 2010, and that the only way to ensure it happens is for him to espouse some progressive policies that offer a way out of the current crisis. Given Brown’s long history of triangulation politics – his “canoe theory” – and his embrace of anti-tax politics, it seems that the only way to push Brown to offer the kind of vision he needs to win the general election is to have a primary challenger who can make Brown compete for the progressive electorate.
Calbuzz seems to try and dismiss this argument, if indirectly:
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?
While those unions will probably turn out for Brown in the fall anyway, it’s not at all clear that “the left” will do so. Brown very much needs to “kiss ass” to progressives if they’re going to be motivated to care about his election. This is the lesson of Virginia and New Jersey, where moderate Democrats generally took progressives for granted and gave them little reason to organize to overcome the right-wing hordes.
As the LA Times/USC poll indicated, voter disillusionment and apathy is likely to be a significant feature of politics in 2010. The candidate that can best overcome that sense of despair is the candidate who will be our next governor.
Again, as we saw in VA and NJ, that candidate could well be a Republican. Flush with money and with a motivated base, Whitman and/or Poizner would give Brown a serious challenge anyway, but particularly if Brown fails to energize his base. Tom Campbell presents the problem in a different way, someone whose policy positions aren’t likely to significantly differ from Brown’s and who could therefore win the independent voters Brown believes are essential to victory, once again assuming Brown can’t motivate progressive turnout.
Judging by the Calbuzz article, it’s not clear if Brown understands this:
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?”
And yet my point is that it doesn’t matter how many primaries he’s been through. All that matters is whether he knows what’s needed to win the 2010 general election. Instead of showing he has some plan to woo progressive voters and generate the kind of momentum and grassroots activity he’ll need to win a turnout election, Brown seems content to rest on his past experiences and assume he can run the same game plan to victory.
Perhaps Brown is right. But it’s not a chance Californians, Democrats, or progressives ought to take. This oracle predicts the only way to push Brown to embrace the progressive policies he’ll need to win is through a contested primary.