Jerry Brown: Earl Warren Redux?

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

The gubernatorial candidate many Republicans might think is the safest bet in the November election just may be Jerry Brown.

Wait a minute, I hear you cry. Brown is a Democrat. Understood, however, consider the reality of California’s current political scene.

Brown’s philosophy expressed in the newly released budget seems to get a greater nod of approval from the Republicans than it does from legislative Democrats and their closely aligned advocacy groups.

Most Republicans and the business community gave the budget proposal soft applause — along with justified shots at certain provisions like Brown’s plan for the high speed rail. While elected Democrats said the right things in support of the Democratic governor, many urged additional “investments,” the transparent code word for more spending.  Advocacy groups that line up on the Democratic side of policy matters were frank that the budget proposal was a “disappointment.”

In terms of electoral politics, Jerry Brown might be in the league of Earl Warren, California’s 30th governor, who pulled off the remarkable feat of capturing both the Republican and Democratic primaries during the 1946 gubernatorial election.

Warren, a Republican, won 91% of the Republican primary vote and squeezed out a 5-point victory in the Democratic primary, securing 52% of the vote. (In the general election he was back at the 91% mark.)

Ask yourself, if Jerry Brown, the powerful incumbent governor, were in a Republican primary today might he fare well against the Republican field?

Certainly, this is not 1946 anymore and politics have changed over seven decades. The primary system has changed, as well. California now has a top two primary instead of closed party primaries. Before that change, state law jettisoned the provision that allowed for cross-filing so a candidate could run in both major party primaries.

But given the Democratic super majorities and the push for more taxes (the Superintendent of Public Instruction already has called for continuation of the Prop 30 temporary taxes which have several years to run, yet!) and calls for more spending by special interest advocates and Democratic legislators, ideas rejected by Brown, Republican voters might hold onto Brown for dear life.

I put the question of Brown replicating Warren’s feat to Jim Newton, editor at large at the Los Angeles Times and Earl Warren’s biographer. (Justice for All, Earl Warren and the Nation He Made. )

Newton responded, “I’m skeptical that anyone, including Brown, will ever replicate Warren’s extraordinary 1946 victory.” But he added, “In a hypothetical world where Jerry Brown entered a Republican primary, I don’t know whether he could win it, though I agree with you that if he did it would say more about the state of the GOP in California than anything about Brown in particular.”

At this moment in time, the governor appears strong and the fear of an unchecked Democratic supermajority could bring many Republicans and business allies into Brown’s tent.

Of course, things can change. The election is a long way off. A Republican candidate, either one of the announced candidates or a new arrival to the campaign, could capture the voters’ imagination and become a real challenge to Brown. The governor could be pressured to change some of his positions on spending and taxes.

In this modern day of highly partisan politics, it is hard to imagine that Brown could pull off the Earl Warren feat. However, if such a primary system were still in place, given the current state of California politics, Brown might fare pretty well.

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