Brown’s Re-Election Effort Likely To Be Quiet One

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Stop the presses. Jerry Brown is running for re-election.

Newspapers from the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune all the way down to the Sioux City Journal and the Billings Gazette carried the news Thursday. Web sites and blogs all reported that the governor announced his intentions in a Twitter feed. The statement on what’s now his campaign website was e-mailed to potential voters across the state, complete with a handy button you could click to make a campaign contribution.

It was a great day for California political junkies. They better savor it, though, since it’s about the last piece of political theater they’re going to see from Brown until at least September. And don’t expect much more then.

Four years ago, Brown ran a truncated, relatively low-cost campaign against Meg Whitman, mostly because he couldn’t afford to match the former eBay exec’s personal millions, which she started spending well before the actual election. This year, he can run a similar late-starting and economical re-election effort because, well, why not.

When you’re up against a pair of GOP opponents most Californians couldn’t pick out of a police lineup, why spend much money to remind voters there’s an election this June and they have any other choice but Brown? Especially when you’re a high-profile governor who gets his name in the paper every day for free.

With a March 7 filing deadline for the governor’s race a week away, it looks like the GOP field will consist of Assemblyman Tim Donnelly and businessman Neel Kashkari. A December Field Poll found that when people were asked what they thought of the two men, 80 percent essentially answered “Tim and Neel who?”

That same poll found that 60 percent of California’s likely voters were happy with the job Brown is doing as governor. Heck, 36 percent of Republicans and 49 percent of conservatives think the 75-year-old Brown is doing just swell in Sacramento, which doesn’t leave much of a constituency left for any opponent.

That doesn’t mean various journalists, talking heads and partisan pols won’t try to gin up some type of a race, even if they don’t really believe it themselves. It’s the old newsman’s call to “Vote the story.”

Lanhee Chen, a Bloomberg View columnist, research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and former policy director for Mitt Romney’s campaign, had a piece last month that argued that California voters don’t believe the state’s financial prospects are improving and that Brown’s proposed budget will do little to improve the state’s high unemployment rate and economic woes.

If Brown “continues to ignore Californians’ interest in real plans to improve the job picture, Brown may find himself fighting for his political life later this year,” he concluded.

Speaking for other members of the punditry class, we can only hope. But as Damon Runyon said years ago, “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”

The problem for Republicans this year (or one of their problems, anyway) is that any re-election campaign is essentially a referendum on the incumbent. As long explained by pollster Merv Field, if voters are happy with the guy in office, they never even look at his opponents. If they don’t like the job he’s doing, they check to see if they like his opponents any better. It’s only when voters decide that they don’t like an incumbent and are convinced the other side would do a better job that there’s a truly contested race.

The 2014 governor’s race isn’t there yet. And you won’t find many of any political stripe who would suggest it ever will get there.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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