- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 7, 2002

Democrats hold both U.S. Senate seats. Rewind. More than a decade ago, then-Sen. Pete Wilson defeated Dianne Feinstein for governor. Inexplicably, he appointed the lackluster "moderate" John Seymour to his Senate seat. Predictably, Mr. Seymour lost to the more appealing Ms. Feinstein. Blame Mr. Wilson?
Meanwhile, that same year (1992), the saintly "conservative" Bruce Herschensohn would have defeated Barbara Boxer. But her campaign engaged in dirty tricks the last week of the campaign. Moreover, Bush-41, hardly engaged Bill Clinton, then conceded before the polls closed. Mr. Herschensohn was a casualty. Our fault?
Two years later, Ms. Feinstein ran for the full Senate term. We wanted the brilliant Rep. Chris Cox. But Washington gushed about the "moderate" Michael Huffington's deep pockets. "They" Republican Senate leaders imported consultants for the transplanted Texan. $30 million dollars later, "we" lost.
Also in 1994, California Republicans captured control of the State Assembly from Democratic Speaker Willie Brown. But then, a home-grown "Jim Jeffords" assemblyman sold out. That effectively delayed Republican sovereignty until a special election. We briefly flirted with power. Our new Republican Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle even appointed me to the Coastal Commission. That's the quasi-judicial body that symbolized leftist hubris. For us, it was like taking over a Romanian tribunal.
Remember Gov. Pete Wilson's re-election? One reason was Democrat Kathleen Brown's mismanaged "campaign." Her ads ended two weeks before election day. Even much earlier, she was down for the count. Yet, Team Wilson still obsessed about Proposition 187, the ballot measure to deny benefits to illegal aliens. Confrontation politics. But in Washington, you thought Mr. Wilson won because of Proposition 187. Stupid. That year (1994) was good for all Republicans: Newt Gingrich won control of Congress.
We (in California) warned national Republican leaders of Mr. Wilson's 187 myopia. What about the profound effects on the growing Latino vote in California, and elsewhere? Now, you're down on Mr. Wilson. Then, national Republican leaders bought into this volatile wedge issue. Immigration is important, but it's nuanced. Republicans are prone to a sledgehammer.
By 1996, California Republicans gave back the State Assembly, but with an inadvertent nudge from the Republican presidential campaign. Sure, Bob Dole lost California. But he lost, period. We never said he could carry California. You did. Based on inept Republican polling, Dole strategists targeted our state. Thus, his viability in California was a straw man. Scarce Republican resources were squandered, effectively freezing money-starved state legislative races. Worse, the national Republicans clumsily tried to make the anti-quotas Proposition 209 into a new wedge issue. That principled ballot measure could have helped Republicans. Instead, they tried to exploit it, turning 209 into a voter turnout weapon for Democrats.
1998: Barbara Boxer was reelected, defeating "moderate" Matt Fong. First, Mr. Fong won a marginally effective Republican primary campaign. He defeated businessman (now-Rep.) Darrell Issa. The deep-pocketed Mr. Issa spent $10 million in a media ad campaign … created out of state. Primary winner Matt Fong gave voters no reason to vote for him in November.
2000: Dianne Feinstein was reelected, defeating "moderate" Tom Campbell. Tom was the high-IQ Republican who appeared to the left of Ms. Feinstein. That same year, the Republican high command poured millions into California for George W. Bush. But the national campaign advertising did not work here. Ironically, second-guessers complained later complained that California had remained in play, when Florida ended up in doubt. Not our fault!
That brings us to what happened in Tuesday. Gov. Gray Davis, despite spending $70 million, failed to receive even a simple majority. Why? This consistently unpopular incumbent generated no enthusiasm. He was worse than vulnerable. Electing him was mission impossible. Voters wanted an alternative any warm body would do.
We ended up with Bill Simon. By accident. Perhaps Secretary of State Bill Jones would have defeated Mr. Davis. But Mr. Jones could not run a viable primary campaign. That left former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. He self-destructed. That allowed Mr. Davis to use $7 million in hit ads. Mr. Davis destroyed what was left of Mr. Riordan.
Mythology aside, the Simon general-election campaign spent enough for victory, Republican Mr. Simon did not need a brilliant campaign, only an adequate one. After all, Mr. Davis was going nowhere fast. His zillions in gross rating points failed to move voters. Independents and many Democrats were on strike.
What an opportunity for Republicans.
The tragedy for Republicans is not that Mr. Simon lost, but that he could have won. Mr. Simon's campaign lacked a strategy. It was a mistake-prone campaign that telegraphed incompetence. Voters had thought anyone was better than Mr. Davis. Until Mr. Simon. Sadly, Mr. Simon was a victim of his own campaign.
Election day was auspicious for Mr. Simon. A macro-Republican trend swept the nation. And California's historic low voter turnout would give Mr. Simon an unprecedented 5-8 point bump. But the reality is that Mr. Simon was behind in double digits throughout September and October. There was no way for him to win. But don't count W out for 2004.

Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist. He has written graduate textbooks on campaign management and media, created political commercials, and conducted surveys and focus groups.

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