If anyone knows where gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides can get some thunder, he'd likely want to know: His opponent, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has been stealing his.
Angelides, a liberal Democrat who currently serves as California state treasurer, is challenging the incumbent Schwarzenegger, a centrist Republican whose popularity has waxed and waned in the state. But the governor has over the past few months looked mighty liberal himself: He hiked the state's minimum wage to the highest in the land; extended joint-tax-filing status to same-sex couples; and signed legislation to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. He's also teamed with Democratic lawmakers to support a bond package designed to raise money for state projects, leaving Angelides to issue a statement in which he claimed that he'd had the idea first.
As a result of Schwarzenegger's strategic thunder-stealing, the race for Golden State governor has shaped up to be more of a leisurely stroll.
The governor rolled into October enjoying double-digit leads in polls by both the Public Policy Institute of California (+17) and the liberal-leaning Field organization (+10). Predictably, the race has tightened somewhat, and current polling numbers show Schwarzenegger leading by 9 percentage points. But unless the governor missteps badly, he will go on to serve a second term.
It's been a year since Schwarzenegger held a November special election in which he presented to voters a slate of reforms in education, redistricting, spending, and the political use of union dues. Every one of those initiatives failed, prompting pundits to predict a swift end to the governor's political career. Eleven months later, though, he seems unstoppable.
For one thing, people just don't much like the bespectacled Angelides, who seems one part policy wonk and one part Sheehan-esque rebel. While his website features a detailed list of policy prescriptions, he has come off as a fevered demagogue by proclaiming his intent to pull California National Guard troops from the "shameful and phony" Iraq War.
In late September, critics nationwide panned the proposal as brazenly unconstitutional. Then, following the candidates' Oct. 7 debate at California State University in Sacramento, other Democrats began distancing themselves from Angelides.
John Garamendi, locked in a tight race for lieutenant governor with conservative Republican Tom McClintock, publicly expressed disagreement with Angelides' intent to raise taxes on wealthy Californians. Democratic strategist Garry South told the Los Angeles Times that electoral "triage" now necessitates a shift of party resources from Angelides to other statewide campaigns.
On social issues, "Angelides is the worst candidate we've had in the last 50 years," said Barbara McPherson, legislative director for the conservative California Family Council. "He has zero moral center." While Schwarzenegger has given ground to homosexual activists on tax and employment issues, he has also vetoed numerous pro-gay bills.
McPherson's group has adopted a policy of incremental change, trying gradually to chip away at the social laboratory that is Sacramento, working with Schwarzenegger instead of railing against him. "Until we can raise up our conservative leaders," she said, "we have to do the best we can with what we've got."
Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger has at times pleased fiscal conservatives. Despite lately trending toward spending (for example, signing a budget increase on par with those approved by ousted Democratic Gov. Gray Davis), he did rescind Davis' hated triple car tax and-in what some analysts say is his greatest achievement-fix the state's workers' compensation program.
When Schwarzenegger took office, businesses in California paid the nation's highest premiums, workers received bottom-of-the-barrel benefits, and health-care providers skimmed billions from the system. Schwarzenegger's overhaul standardized disability assessment, stopped improper payments, and cut system costs by more than half.
And though his 2005 reform bid failed, California conservatives consider Schwarzenegger's special election a good-faith attempt to rein in Sacramento. "He failed and now he's trying to do the best he can some other way," said John Kurzweil, editor of California Political Review. "But you can't say he was a big phony."