Gov. Jerry Brown won re-election Tuesday to a historic fourth term, buoyed by an improving economy and a liberal-leaning electorate in a race so lopsided Brown barely bothered to campaign.
The election is likely the last for Brown, who first won office 40 years ago, in 1974, and is the state’s longest-serving governor. Brown’s agenda in his final term is expected to focus heavily on policies addressing climate change and on two controversial legacy projects: construction of a high-speed rail system and a water conveyance system that eluded Brown when he was governor before.
The continuation of Brown’s administration will also test the patience of a Democratic-controlled Legislature that has agitated in recent years for more spending on social services and education. Brown has resisted Democrats’ most ambitious efforts, including proposals to extend temporary tax increases passed in 2012.
Brown led Republican Neel Kashkari 58 percent to 42 percent with more than a third of precincts reporting.
“The key for the next four years it to make the government do what it’s supposed to,” Brown told reporters outside the historic governor’s mansion in Sacramento just after the polls closed.
Noting Republican gains elsewhere in the country Tuesday night, the Democratic governor said that in California, “We are going to go in a very progressive but fiscally responsible direction.”
Brown benefited in his re-election year from his reputation as a fiscal moderate and management of a state budget that went from deficits to surpluses during his third term.
He cast himself as a steward of state finances, championing two ballot propositions, a $7.5 billion water bond and budget reserve measure, which both won handily Tuesday.
The water bond and budget reserve gained bipartisan support in the Legislature, and Brown – facing minimal opposition from Kashkari – devoted his energies in recent weeks to the propositions.
Brown’s own race was so low-profile that he aired no TV ads identifying himself as a candidate for re-election, and he spent the second-to-last weekend before Election Day on the East Coast, at a class reunion at Yale Law School.
Now 76, Brown is California’s oldest sitting governor, and he surpassed Earl Warren as the state’s longest-serving last year. In winning election, he became the only California governor ever elected to four terms. There may not be another one after Brown. His first two terms, from 1975 to 1983, predated a constitutional amendment that limits chief executives to two terms.
Brown vowed that “every part of my mind, my body, my imagination I’m going to throw into this next four years.”
He said, “I jump out of bed and I want to go, so tomorrow, I’ll be there figuring out, you know, what the hell you do in a fourth term.”
Brown said little specific about his plans for a fourth term, but he has stockpiled millions of dollars in campaign funds he said he may use to “finish with a flourish with some major ballot measure battle” in 2016 or 2018.
He has said he will move within six months to establish more ambitious statewide goals for reducing carbon emissions while continuing to promote the state’s relatively liberal climate policies in other states and countries.
Brown is a long-standing champion of environmental causes, but his prospects for creating a legacy around infrastructure projects is less certain. Brown, whose late father, Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, was renowned for public works achievements in the 1960s, is attempting to build a $68 billion high-speed rail project and pair of massive tunnels to divert water around the Delta.
Brown unsuccessfully promoted versions of both projects when he was governor before, and they both face ongoing political and funding concerns.
The election amounted to a victory lap for a governor who has spent a lifetime in politics. The outcome was never in question, with Brown leading Kashkari by double digit percentages in public opinion polls for the duration of the campaign.
No California governor has lost a re-election effort for a second term since Culbert Olson lost to Warren in 1942, and Kashkari failed to raise enough money to mount a significant challenge against Brown.
For Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury Department official, the real contest ended five months ago, when he bested Republican Tim Donnelly, a tea party favorite, in the primary election.
Kashkari significantly outspent Donnelly in the race, but his advancement was viewed by many Republicans as a hopeful sign of the ideological direction of the party. Many members of the GOP’s professional and political classes believed Kashkari, a moderate who supports same-sex marriage, abortion rights and a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, could boost the party’s efforts to appeal to young voters and minorities.
Kashkari traversed the state, criticizing Brown for education policies and a state poverty rate that ranks highest in the nation when adjusted for the cost of living. He posed as a homeless man in Fresno for a week to highlight unemployment.
Kashkari maintained until the end that he could win on Election Day, but he acknowledged other goals. At a campaign appearance just more than a week before the election, Kashkari said that, regardless of the outcome, “we are changing the message. It’s a much more inclusive party today than it was a year ago, so that’s great.”
Kashkari, in his concession statement, advised Brown: “Governor, in your last four years, please be bold.”
Brown appears to have reached the height of his political career. After running three times for president, most recently in 1992, he has said he will not run for president in 2016.
Asked recently if he would consider running for mayor of Oakland again, as he sometimes jokes, Brown also ruled that idea out, suggesting the governor’s office may be the last one he holds.
“Other than being governor, I don’t know that you should repeat things too often,” Brown said. “Didn’t they say first time is tragedy, second time is farce? So I want to be wary of that.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that no California governor has lost a re-election bid for a second term since Culbert Olsen in 1942. Pat Brown lost his bid for a third term in 1966. Corrected 9:15 a.m. on Nov. 5, 2014.