Bill Whalen

Will 2018 be another watershed election for California?

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Democratic candidate for governor of California, speaks to the Democratic Party of Orange County in Orange, on July 12.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Democratic candidate for governor of California, speaks to the Democratic Party of Orange County in Orange, on July 12. Los Angeles Times/TNS

We think of politics in two- and four-year election cycles. But in California, those aren’t the only numbers worth remembering.

There’s a “rule of eight.” Going back to World War II, every California governor who has sought a second term has won it.

There’s also a “rule of 20.” Every two decades, California holds a statewide election that turns out to be a watershed. This November’s vote may or may not follow that rule.

The pattern starts in 1938 with the election of Democrat Culbert Olson, the last one-term governor to get bounced. But with his mistrust in business and his progressive faith – “It is the social responsibility of government in promoting the general welfare to exercise control and stabilization of the national economy,” the atheist governor said in year one – Olson would have a sympathetic audience in today’s Legislature.


The 1958 election marks the beginning of Pat Brown’s tenure and eight years of ambitious building – roads, water, schools – for a growing California. It’s a bar every governor, including his son, has tried and mostly failed to clear.

The 1978 election brought the property tax rebellion. Proposition 13, approved by voters in that year’s primary, became a “third rail” of California politics.

The 1998 election is the beginning of Fortress Blue California. Democrats won five of seven constitutional offices, with Republicans failing to crack 40 percent in four of five losses. Only one Republican not named Arnold Schwarzenegger has won a statewide office since. That would be Steve Poizner who was elected insurance commissioner in 2006, but is running again this year as an independent.

bill whalen new.jpg
Bill Whalen

What about 2018? Charting narratives 60 days before a vote can be a foolish endeavor (ask anyone, present company included, who predicted Donald Trump’s demise). Still, two features of this election stand out: Democratic cockiness and the flickering light of anti-tax politics.

Cockiness is embodied in Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s interest in down-ticket races – not Sacramento offices, mind you, but battleground congressional districts. Newsom is so confident that he’ll be California’s next governor that last month he sent an email to supporters urging them to send money to Democratic upstart Josh Harder running against Rep. Jeff Denham in the state’s 10th Congressional District, which lies in the northern San Joaquin Valley.

How often do candidates in the middle of a race redirect money down ticket this far from Election Day? About as often as parents heading out of town hand their kids the keys to the bar.

As for the anti-tax movement, the litmus test is Proposition 6 and its proposed repeal of last year’s gasoline and diesel tax approved by the Legislature.

Fifteen years ago, Schwarzenegger waved an anti-tax broom on the steps of the state Capitol, in part, to protest higher vehicle license fees. He got his way and won the recall election. But so too did his successor, who twice persuaded voters to stick California’s highest earners with income tax hikes.

However, Jerry Brown was smart enough to trot out his tax increases in bigger turnout presidential election years. And he sold the two ballot measures as what was best for California public education.

In 2018, we’ll see if neglected roads and infrastructure – the justification for raising fuel taxes – has the same clout as neglected school kids.

Moreover, Prop. 6 again tests whether there’s a price for meddling in California’s love affair with the automobile; just ask any Capitol old-timer who was around for the smog check protests of the 1990s.

That should cover us until the 2038 election, which coincides with Brown’s 100th birthday. California may have repealed term limits by then.

Need I say more?

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at


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