Why Cooley Lost

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

With GOP attorney general candidate Steve Cooley’s loss to
Democrat Kamala Harris now confirmed, the Republicans have now lost every
statewide office for only the second time since 1882.   What’s worse, this happened in the midst of
national GOP landslide, and Cooley’s loss was unexpected; in fact, every
pre-election public and private poll showed Cooley winning.  So why did he lose?

Three reasons.

The first was of his own doing.  Asked by a Los Angeles Times reporter if he
planned to "double dip" by taking his district attorney pension along with his
$150,000 a year salary as attorney general, Cooley answered, "Yes, I do. I
earned it. I definitely earned whatever pension rights I have and I will certainly
rely upon that to supplement the very low, incredibly low, salary that’s paid
to the state attorney general."

Harris blanketed the airwaves with a TV spot
repeating this statement and asking the obvious question, "$150,000 a year
isn’t enough"?  In a state with families
struggling to make ends meet in this recession, here is poor Mr. Cooley unable
to live on $150k a year.  How much
sympathy do you suppose the ordinary voter had for that?  Democratic operatives say that Cooley’s
numbers began falling in their polls as soon as the TV spot ran.

The second reason was the unprecedented high
Latino turnout.  Racist Republican
immigrant bashing, especially in the GOP primary, had its expected effect: mobilization
of a massive Latino turnout in November to vote the straight Democratic
ticket.  Cooley had been elected Los
Angeles County district attorney three times, but running as a Republican for
attorney general he could not even break 40 percent in Los Angeles County.  Democrats spent several million dollars in a
very effective Latino turnout campaign, pushing the Latino share of the vote
this year to 22 percent, up from 18 percent two years ago. 

Although it seemed impossible in this
political climate, Democratic, spurred by Latinos, turned out in droves to support
their ticket, and Republican stayed home. 
Turnout in Orange County as lower than it was in San Francisco!  So much for a big Republican turnout this
year. 

None of this was Cooley’s fault.  He did not immigrant bash, and his stand on
things like the death penalty for cop killers (he’s for it and Harris opposed)
was much closer to Latino views on law and order.  But that did not matter; all Republicans had
to be punished and the Latino leaders saw that they were.

The third reason was the toxic Republican
label in this state.  Again Cooley was a
victim.  A majority of California voters have
made it clear they will no longer support a Republican for statewide office,
even one with Cooley’s nonpartisan image. 
An October PPIC poll found that 62 percent of voters disapproved of the
Republican Party, the highest of any political institution in the state.

Today’s California Republican Party is a
regional party with declining registration and a lack of any presence at all in
the San Francisco Bay Area and in all but a sliver of Los Angeles County.  That is half the state where the Republican
Party no longer exists.  

So could a future Steve Cooley ever get
elected in California?  Yes there is a
way.  With the "top two open primary"
coming into effect in 2012, it will be possible for a well known and respected
figure like Cooley to run as an independent and earn a place on the fall
ballot.  California will no longer have
party nominees; candidates will run "preferring" Democrat, Republican or "no
party preference".  A moderate
conservative could still win, this is a fiscally conservative state, but not as
a Republican.  So the trick will be to
make the November ballot with no party designation.

The days of Republicans winning statewide
office – other than with an Arnold Schwarzenegger – has certainly past.  Had Cooley not had the Republican label in
this election he surely would have won, even with his salary remark.  A future candidate with nonpartisan
credentials will certainly take note of that.

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