WASHINGTON -- Arnold Schwarzenegger's landslide victory in the California recall, an election treated as a ludicrous aberration by the bipartisan political establishment, could exert overriding political significance nationally.
California instantly is in question as a solid electoral anchor of Democratic presidential strength. Without California, chances of defeating George W. Bush next year are nil. Short of that transforming development, the tawdry performance by Democrats in the brief recall campaign creates anxiety among thoughtful party loyalists outside California who looked askance at tactics used in the country's most populous state.
For weeks, California Democrats have been confiding to me that the recall of Gov. Gray Davis was inevitable and the election of the popular actor was probable. Yet, Davis's inner circle and the state party leadership could think only of personal attacks on Schwarzenegger to avoid a Democratic debacle.
The decisive element of the recall election was the breaking of a vicious cycle that seemed to doom the California Republican Party to perpetual defeat. The model was the 2002 GOP primary for governor, where the party's conservative base rejected two candidates who could have defeated an unpopular Davis and nominated one who could not.
California never has been solidly conservative, and its electorate is less conservative than ever. Even Ronald Reagan as governor signed a bill to legalize abortion and was open-minded on homosexual rights. The decline of Caucasian voters into minority status and the continuing influx of Latinos created Democratic pretensions of inviolability and sent Republicans into a slough of despair.
The recall mechanism resolved the Republican dilemma by effectively nominating a candidate without a primary election. Schwarzenegger, who as a young body builder wore a Milton Friedman "Free to Choose" T-shirt during workouts, came across to voters as an economic libertarian conservative who is pro-choice and pro-gay rights. That model spells big trouble for Democrats.
One prominent Democrat with extensive experience in California campaigns is worried on two counts. First is the potential creation of a moderate California Republican Party. Second is the vicious effort to destroy Schwarzenegger personally.