It was a first in this election year when Gov. Jerry Brown appeared in a TV ad recently for a state Senate candidate in Southern California.
Brown has done little visibly to help other members of his party.
In addition to the ad for Jose Solorio, Brown joined an Assembly candidate at an event in Irvine this month and asked residents of Oakland, where he once was mayor, to vote for a former aide in this year’s election.
Yet despite Brown’s widespread popularity – and the relative ease with which he is expected to win his own re-election campaign – the governor is nowhere to be seen in most down-ticket races.
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Instead, Brown is campaigning for a water bond and budget reserve measure on the November ballot.
Brown’s reluctance to engage in other races comes in a year of relatively high stakes for the Democratic Party, which is fighting in legislative races to maintain a two-thirds supermajority in the Assembly and to reclaim a supermajority in the Senate. The party’s prospects are uncertain, and it is unclear how meaningful the effort is to Brown.
Holding a supermajority became less significant when voters lowered the threshold for budget passage to a simple majority in 2010, and Brown said last year that even if Democrats lose supermajority status, “I don’t think that’s going to make a lot of difference.”
Nor is Brown, except for raising money, overly focused on his own re-election. With a huge lead over Republican Neel Kashkari in fundraising and public opinion polls, Brown has yet to run a single advertisement in which he identifies himself as a candidate for re-election. His campaign Web page is dominated by a “Yes on Props 1 & 2” banner. It includes some recent news coverage of his campaign, but the most recent news release is more than two years old, and the most recent video is from a news conference he gave the morning after he was elected in 2010.
“That’s an interesting phenomenon this year,” said former state Sen. Jim Battin, a Republican. “The governor, his re-election strategy is to not run for re-election, which seems to be working.”
Instead of campaigning publicly for re-election – or for other Democrats – Brown is funding advertisements for the $7.5 billion water bond and budget reserve measures.
Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said it is appropriate for Brown to focus heavily on Propositions 1 and 2 because the water bond and budget measures offer “some of the best evidence of what he has accomplished during his first term.”
Focusing on the ballot measures is also helpful politically to Brown, both for the publicity it affords him – Brown appears in two TV ads for the measures – and for the extra opportunity it gives donors to support his causes.
There are no contribution limits to ballot measure committees, and at least 25 donors who have contributed to Brown have also given to his campaign for Propositions 1 and 2.
Brown entered the final month of the campaign with $23.6 million in his re-election account. One advantage of facing only modest opposition is that he could finish the race with a significant war chest.
Brown has said little specific about his plans for a fourth term, but many Democrats view the 2016 ballot – and likely favorable turnout in a presidential election year – as an opportunity for a potential ballot measure, whether related to taxes or some other issue.
“My guess is Gov. Brown will probably want to do something dramatic or big on either the 2016 or 2018 ballot,” said Richie Ross, a Democratic political consultant. “Jerry Brown will not become a lame duck. He is too skillful, and he knows ... that if you’ve got 20 million in the bank, you ain’t a lame duck.”
The last time an incumbent governor stood for re-election, in 2006, Arnold Schwarzenegger, like Brown, faced relatively safe re-election prospects and spent much of the year promoting $37.3 billion in public works bonds. Schwarzenegger was re-elected, and the public works bonds passed. Yet despite hope by Republicans that Schwarzenegger’s popularity would lift other members of his party, Republicans failed that year to muster a net gain in statewide seats.
This year Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist who worked for Schwarzenegger, said Brown is “in a little bit of a tough spot in that if Democrats win some swing seats, he can probably take some credit for pulling them across the line.”
Alternatively, Stutzman said, “I think he could just as easily get re-elected and lose three Assembly seats and barely pass the water bond.”
If that happens, Stutzman said, Brown will head into 2015 on a “limp.”
Brown headlined a private fundraiser last week for the state Democratic Party’s get-out-the-vote effort. But he last appeared at a public event nearly two weeks ago, at a school in San Jose. At that event, Brown said nothing about the candidate who shared the stage with him, Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction who is in a difficult re-election campaign.
Instead, Brown promoted exercise and left quickly, brushing past reporters without comment on his way out.
Dan Newman, a political spokesman for Brown, said in an email that Brown has involved himself in legislative races at the request of Democratic legislative leaders “but he’s primarily focused on Props 1 & 2.”
In some legislative contests, Brown’s absence suggests not only his lack of interest but also the limitations of his coattails.
Though Brown is relatively popular statewide, races that will determine the makeup of the Legislature are being fought in districts where Democrats and Republicans are more evenly divided. In the Central Valley and Southern California areas outside Los Angeles, the third-term governor has never been received as warmly as elsewhere in this liberal-leaning state.
“He’s fine, but he’s not the – I don’t think that in some of these races where turnout’s tight that the governor’s numbers are such that it’s going to turn into a massive Democratic wave,” said Andrew Acosta, a Democratic political consultant in Sacramento. “One visit from the governor doesn’t make that happen.”
Brown traveled two weeks ago to Irvine, in Orange County, to join Sharon Quirk-Silva at an event at the future site of the Southern California Veterans Cemetery. The appearance was brief and, from a political standpoint, low-key. Brown lost the district by about 8 percentage points to Republican Meg Whitman in 2010.
Brown was also outpolled by Whitman in the Orange County district where he appeared in a cable TV ad for Solorio, a former assemblyman running against Janet Nguyen, a Republican county supervisor, for state Senate.
The ad was a narrowly crafted response to criticism that Solorio, if elected, would vote to increase spending and raise taxes. Brown, who has cultivated a reputation for frugality that extends beyond his Democratic base, tells viewers Solorio “was one of my closest allies in stopping the out-of-control spending” in Sacramento.
“We’re not trying to tap into the governor’s popularity or lack thereof,” said Ross, who is advising Solorio. “We’re trying to tap into the fact that on this specific issue he has credibility, even amongst conservative voters.”
It is possible that Brown’s re-election campaign will perk up in the final days before the election, or that he will provide additional assistance to down-ticket Democrats. But expectations are relatively low.
“You know, Jerry Brown’s never been the going-out-on-the-stump political guy,” said Steve Maviglio, a Democratic strategist. “He hardly does events for himself.”
Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.
Big donors to Propositions 1 and 2
Gov. Jerry Brown is running advertisements for Propositions 1 and 2 out of his own campaign account, which also tops the list of large donors to the initiative committee. Here are the largest contributors to the measures:
Brown for Governor 2014: $3,367,202
Napster co-founder Sean Parker: $1,000,000
California Alliance for Jobs – Rebuild California Committee: $521,250
California Hospitals Committee on Issues, sponsored by California Association of Hospitals and Health Systems: $500,000
Gap co-founder Doris Fisher: $499,000