At one of the few campaign rallies he held prior to cruising to an easy and historic fourth-term election, Gov. Jerry Brown told a reporter he had not felt the need to hold many rallies. “I don’t think we’ve needed them,” he said.
Indeed, not since Republican Earl Warren in 1946 has a gubernatorial candidate done so little to win so much.
Sixty-eight years ago, California had cross-filing for political races, which meant a candidate could appear on the ballot of both major parties. In that year, Warren won both the Democratic and Republican primaries and then got an astounding 91.1 percent of the vote in the general election against a hapless Democrat and former attorney general by the name of Robert Walter Kenny.
This was long before television ads came along to clutter the political landscape, and Warren, who had already served one term, was so popular that Kenny barely showed up. The incumbent governor also benefited from a post-war political climate that bore no resemblance to the hateful polarization that plagues us today.
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Proving that 1946 was no fluke, Warren won an unprecedented third term in 1950, defeating the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s son James by 30 percentage points.
Unlike Warren’s era, California is notorious now for record-breaking big spending on major races, most of it on TV spots. But the only commercials featuring Brown showed him promoting his two favored ballot measures – Proposition 1, the state water bond, and Proposition 2, to preserve a rainy-day fund in the case of lowered revenues. Both passed.
He amassed a campaign treasury of more than $20 million but spent only a fraction of it.
After agreeing to only a single debate with his opponent, Republican Neel Kashkari, it was lightly viewed statewide on a Thursday night, competing with the opening of the National Football League season.
His campaign staff consisted primarily of himself, his wife, Anne Gust, a handful of others and, presumably, his Welsh corgi, Sutter.
But when the final results were posted early the next day, Brown had nearly 59 percent of the vote, and Kashkari, despite sinking a few million of his personal fortune into the race, only 41 percent.
After all is said and done, one would be hard-pressed to say Jerry Brown is as popular today as Earl Warren was in his day. So how do we explain the fact that man a lot of people nationwide once saw as frivolous and unfocused – a “Gov. Moonbeam,” as he was unfairly labeled – could be re-elected at the ripe old age of 76?
For one thing, he is a familiar name in California politics, and that counts for a lot. He had voter registration on his side in a decidedly Democratic state. He’s become as comfortable to voters as an old shoe. The state is in pretty good shape under his leadership, especially compared to his predecessor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. Finally, he had an exceptionally weak opponent.
In all likelihood, we will not see another campaign – or noncampaign – like this one for another 68 years, if ever. Warren was unique for his generation, and the unconventional Brown definitely is unique for his, which he proved by returning to his family’s roots and holding his final campaign event in a most unlikely location, heavily Republican and lightly populated Colusa County.
That is where his great-grandfather August Schuckman settled in the mid-1850s after arriving overland in California. “I don’t want you to feel this is some walk down memory lane,” he told his audience, “but it’s really important that we know where we came from if we want to figure out where we’re going.”
Now we have four more years to see where Jerry Brown is going and where he intends to take us.
Endicott is a former deputy managing editor of The Sacramento Bee.