When California Republicans vote in next Tuesday's primary, they will face a much less difficult choice for their party's nomination for governor than they had just a few weeks ago. Until recently, liberal Republican Richard Riordan, former mayor of Los Angeles, was running ahead of Democratic Governor Gray Davis in the polls, while conservative Republican candidate William Simon was trailing well behind both.
This presented an all too familiar dilemma for Republican voters: Vote for the candidate who represents your own views in the primaries or vote for the one who has the best chance to win in the general election?
As a result of Governor Gray Davis' all-out campaign of attack ads against Riordan, the former mayor's poll numbers have not only fallen sharply below those of Governor Davis, but are now dead even with those of William Simon. The whole point of this media blitz during the primary election season was to get rid of the front-running Republican candidate, in order to face someone who is thought to be easier to beat in the general election next fall.
At this point, the choice for Republicans is no longer whether to vote for someone who looks like a winner versus someone who actually stands for the things you believe in. Riordan has lost his "winner" status -- and that was all he ever had.
Mushy candidates like Richard Riordan can garner enough votes to become mayor of a liberal city like Los Angeles, without having to energize the conservative Republican voters. But, in a general election for governor, there are more conservative voters out in the valleys than in the coastal cities like Los Angeles. Whether those voters turn out to vote or stay home on election night can be a deciding factor. Mushy liberal candidates don't bring out conservative voters, except to vote against them.
William Simon has run unabashedly as a conservative Republican from the beginning. He can wake up Republican voters in a state where their party has been in the doldrums. As a young fresh face, with credentials outside of politics as a businessman and philanthropist, Simon may have broader appeal as well, especially after Governor Gray Davis' gross mismanagement of the electricity crisis and generally unsavory politics.
When it is no longer a question of winning with Riordan or losing with Simon, Republicans have more to gain with Simon, whether they win or lose in this fall's general election. Even an unlikely Riordan victory would represent no building of a party base with a clear alternative to the Democrats. Riordan has been essentially a Democrat in Republican clothing.
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