THE BLOG
03/04/2013 07:20 pm ET Updated May 04, 2013

Will Jerry Brown Be Unopposed for Reelection?

Do you remember Elizabeth Emken? No? Let me refresh your memory. She was the Republican nominee for the United States Senate in California. Last year, actually. Against Sen. Dianne Feinstein. She did not prevail.

Actually, though Feinstein's job approval rating had notably slumped, she got 62.5 percent of the vote to Emken's 37.5 percent. DiFi barely did any campaign events and ran no ads.

Brown's numbers are up. He is in a triumphant situation after winning the landslide passage of Proposition 30 and presenting a balanced budget ending the state's chronic budget crisis, a budget which finally eliminated the $26 billion budget deficit he had to contend with on taking office just over two years ago. He did this by following through on his promised combination of budget cuts and revenue increases approved by the voters.

Who do the Republicans have to go up against him?

The California Republican Party held its state convention this past weekend in Sacramento. Did any sane and serious candidate emerge to run against Brown?

No.

Gov. Jerry Brown declared "We are playing Russian roulette with our climate" during a session of the National Governors Association conference in Washington.

Though Republican sources insist that a "legitimate" opponent will be found and offered. Which is not to be confused with a candidate with an actual chance of defeating Brown.

Some new names were chatted up, including former Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado -- who had an op-ed in the Sacramento Bee and told the San Francisco Chronicle he"s seriously considering a gubernatorial run -- and Congressman Darrell Issa.

I can see the former, as a sort of repositioning statement, though little more. I can't see the latter at all.

Maldonado was appointed to the lieutenant governorship by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but lost to Gavin Newsom in the 2010 Democratic landslide led by Brown. The former state senator then lost a congressional race last November by 10 points.

Issa, the very pugnacious super-rich chairman of the House Oversight Committee funded the signature gathering to qualify the 2003 recall, but pulled out of the race himself after being effectively roughed up by Democratic opposition researchers, with Schwarzenegger waiting in the wings.

Maldonado is a nice, intelligent guy. I've had lunch with him. But I wonder what he would find to run on against Brown.

They basically agree on most of the big issues. Maldonado helped devise the 2009 budget compromise, which included a big temporary tax hike. Brown tried for six months to extend that deal and couldn't find the Republican legislative votes he needed to even get the extension on the ballot. After that, he turned to his own initiative, which ended up with a significant temporary tax surcharge on the rich. Maldonado and his friends are probably against that, but anyone who tries to run on cutting taxes for the rich is, ah, how to put this diplomatically?

As Arnold Schwarzenegger's appointed lieutenant governor, Maldonado also championed the controversial high-speed rail program, as well as the state's landmark climate change and renewable energy programs so hated by the right-wing. He wouldn't run to the right of Brown on social issues or immigration, as that would defeat the whole modernizing impulse for Republicans.

He might try to run on reforming the public pension system, but Brown occupies that space, too, having backed the reforms that Schwarzenegger and Maldonado pushed, and having gotten more expansive if still modest reforms of his own. But even if Brown wasn't already there politically, the polling I've seen indicates that the public isn't terribly concerned about the issue.

Republicans have until next year to come up with a candidate. But at every state convention at this stage of the process in the past, there was a major candidate or two on hand to do the developmental work that anyone must do to mount a serious campaign.

Nevertheless, the Republicans will have a candidate against Brown, who of course has not announced his intentions but gives every sign of going for an historic fourth term. Failure to do so would lead to an even greater collapse for Republicans down-ticket than they had in 2012, when Emken ran against Feinstein and Mitt Romney was crushed in the race for the Golden State's electoral votes by President Barack Obama.

While Feinstein was not technically unopposed for reelection, she was effectively unopposed.

If the GOP's capable new party chairman, former state Senate Minority Leader Jim Brulte, has any hope of instituting his "nuts and bolts" agenda of rebuilding the party, he has to find a standard-bearer to put up against Brown.

Top Republicans tell me the goal is to find a "legitimate" candidate to run against Brown to keep the bottom from falling out for the rest of the ticket. When I likened that hoped-for candidate to the Washington Generals -- that's the team that always played and lost to the Harlem Globetrotters -- they didn't protest.

Before the convention, a couple of others had surfaced.

One was Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach, a Dutch-born former Orange County treasurer who is termed out of his seat on the county board of supervisors. He seems realistic about his chances.

Moorlach would join far right state Assemblyman Tom Donnelly -- a border vigilante who tried to bring a loaded handgun on an airliner -- and a very rich guy whose name escapes me. But some in Orange County tell me that Moorlach is just seeking publicity, knowing he has no chance at all of beating Brown and is actually more interested in a run for another local office.

It's tricky finding a candidate. A really famous person sees that even if you win, like Arnold, it may be a rugged ride. (Especially for a Republican.) And after Brown's 54 percent to 41 percent trouncing of billionaire Meg Whitman and her biggest spending non-presidential campaign in American history, a really rich person sees that all their money can be counter-balanced by the power and money of the Democrats and the skill and brand of Brown, with the candidate ending up publicly humiliated and widely hated.

Frankly, I see no way a Republican can beat Jerry Brown. So it would have to be someone who saw it as a multi-stage project, someone who also had faith that the Republicans won't become the Whigs.

That's tricky, because once someone runs as a Republican they lose credibility for a future race as an independent. That was former state Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher's real problem in San Diego, where the one-time rising Republican star re-registered as an independent but, after a flurry of interest and support, didn't make the run-off for mayor. (The right-wing Republican who did led the first round of voting but ended up losing to Democrat Bob Filner in November.)

Brown has some very nice polling numbers from the latest Field Poll.

Brown's job approval is up to 57 percent, the highest it's been in this go-round as governor. Only 31 percent disapprove.

And a plurality of California voters now believes the state is heading in the right direction, the highest that number has been since 2007, i.e., before the great global recession.

Even the much derided state legislature has a boost in its numbers, though it's still very well underwater.

And a big majority, 55 percent to 39 percent, likes the fact that both houses of the legislature are now in super-majority Democratic control.

Of course, Brown was more popular during his first term as governor, with a record 69 percent job approval rating. Prior to running for president.

But even with these very strong numbers for Brown, there is popular concern that big spending programs, tax policy, and friendliness to organized labor can go too far.

Funny how those things figure in something I'm working on regarding how the Democrats can still blow their golden opportunity to dominate California politics in perpetuity.

As former Gov. Gray Davis, Brown's chief of staff during his first two terms as governor, pointed out in one of our discussions last week, things can always go wrong.

But, barring his being hit by the proverbial bus, it's hard to see how much goes wrong for Brown in seeking and gaining an historic fourth term as California's governor. That's a function of his strength, and of the Republicans' grave weakness.

Meanwhile, he is getting mostly good news in addition to the polling dealing with him and his governorship.

Prior to his trip last week to the National Governors Association conference, this Washington Post story ran with leading economists debunking conservative claims that Prop 30 will negatively impact California's economy.

And more numbers from the Field Poll carried more signs of a shift to the left by California voters.

Same-sex marriage is now overwhelmingly favored by California voters, 61 percent to 32 percent, an almost exact turnaround over the past 36 years.

In 1977, when Field first polled on gay marriage, it was overwhelmingly opposed, 59 percent to 28 percent.

Same-sex marriage is now supported by all the major groupings in the state -- ethnic, geographic, sociological, ideological, partisan, religious -- with only three exceptions: Conservatives, Republicans, and Protestants.

Or, put another way, the folks who met at the California Republican Party convention.

Who weren't at all happy about the Field Poll showing a whopping 90 percent level of voter support for granting longtime illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, as well as a majority backing drivers licenses for illegal immigrants.

That followed polling showing strong support for California's landmark climate change program -- 70 percent of California voters back this controversial bete noire of the political right and fossil fuel advocates -- and for more stringent gun controls. There is even a new Field Poll showing a 54 percent to 43 percent majority of California voters now support legalizing marijuana.

This is the highest, as it were, level ever. In 1969, only 13 percent favored legalization.

While these telling tides of opinion shift sharply against Republicans, controversial programs move forward.

The high-speed rail project which Brown finally pushed through the legislature last year, following crucial earlier moves by Schwarzenegger and Davis, is moving forward.

The cap-and-trade carbon market -- which Schwarzenegger insisted on as a means of adding market flexibility to regulating greenhouse gases but was later, oddly, blasted by the far right as a sort of socialism -- is taking hold, with the state's second auction last week a success.

So is it all good? Of course not. This is government we're talking about. There's always inefficiency and incompetence.

But Brown's enemies are either silent or carping. His press antagonist of the past 40 years, conservative Sacramento Union-turned-Bee columnist Dan Walters, is futilely trying to move the goal posts of the debate of the past decade of budget crisis, complaining that the state budget may not be really balanced because the state has a past debt and participates in retirement programs that look short of future funding.

By that shifting standard, the federal budget has seldom if ever been balanced. The Clinton balanced budget, before George W. Bush got ahold of things and Barack Obama accelerated them? Didn't happen. At least in historical rewrite. In any event, Brown is insisting on paying down debt rather than restoring some expansive older programs that he and Schwarzenegger cut back during the height of the budget crisis.

Not that this has much to do with the election.

Will Jerry Brown be unopposed for reelection?

Technically, no. Effectively? We'll see.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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