Gray Davis has made a career out of being the incarnation of None of the Above, a ballot option made flesh. He’s not popular, he’s not inspiring, he’s not likable, but he’s also not the other candidate. Davis doesn’t have supporters, really. Rather, he receives support from those who don’t like his opponents. Which is what makes the attempt by California Republicans to petition for his recall so fascinating and so dangerous for the California governor: What happens when the None of the Above candidate actually squares off against None of the Above?
Davis’ political success—including his ability to survive a recall election this fall (or next spring), should the petition drive pick up enough signatures to call one—hinges on his ability to convince voters to Throw the Bum In. He became governor of California in 1998 after emerging from the Democratic primary as the least of three evils: He sat on the sidelines while two self-funded millionaire candidates, Al Checchi and Jane Harman, bathed each other in mud. Four years later, Davis won again on the I’m-not-the-other-guy platform: He beat Republican challenger Bill Simon Jr. (another millionaire), but he did so unspectacularly. Davis managed only 47 percent of the vote, and he garnered 1.7 million fewer votes than he had four years earlier. Simon’s campaign against Davis was so inept that one Republican consultant complained to the Los Angeles Times, “It is so obvious that simply an adequate, not a brilliant, campaign would have prevailed against Davis.”
Davis copped to the secret of his political success in 1995, shortly after his election as California’s lieutenant governor, when he told the Los Angeles Times (quoting former Sen. Alan Cranston), “I have only one skill—I can pick weak opponents.” He put that skill to good use in 2002, when he intervened in California’s Republican gubernatorial primary in a successful attempt to handpick the opponent he would face in the general election. Davis ran ads that opposed the moderate Republican Richard Riordan, setting up Davis’ ideal face-off against Simon, a conservative that Davis could properly vilify.
Even those who praise Davis couch their admiration in the negative: They like Davis because of what he’s not rather than what he is. During Davis’ first run for governor in 1998, the New Republic’s Peter Beinart lauded him for not being a plutocratic donor-turned-candidate like Checchi or Harman (a character type that Beinart criticized for taking over California politics). Beinart’s highest praise for Davis: “[H]is lack of charisma is refreshing.” The next year, the Weekly Standard celebrated Davis for not being a lefty, highlighting his “remarkable effort to strip California Democrats of doctrinaire liberalism.” Many of Davis’ donors, in fact, are Republicans who see him as the best of the bad lot the California Democrats have to offer. If a Democrat is going to win, the thinking goes, it might as well be Davis.
But can Davis employ this at-least-I’m-not-the-other-guy approach when there’s no other guy to run against? In a recall election, voters would cast ballots to determine whether Davis would stay on as governor, and they would also pick a replacement from a list of candidates, in case the recall is successful. The barriers to being on that list are shockingly low: Pay $3,500 or submit 10,000 signatures, and you’re on the ballot. (Click here for more details on how a recall election would work.) As the New York Times pointed out this past weekend, if there are enough candidates on the list, 45 percent of the voters could want to keep Davis as governor, and he could be replaced by a candidate who wins only 15 percent or 20 percent (or less) of the vote.
Davis certainly won’t ward off a recall by selling his winning personality to voters. If a man is to be judged by the friends he keeps, Davis is hard to judge—because he doesn’t have any. “Gray doesn’t really have any friends,” an anonymous “Davis associate” told the LA Weekly last year. “He has supporters. His friends are his supporters.” Or, as one of Davis’ Stanford fraternity brothers complained to the Los Angeles Times, “He’s a cipher.” Unlike the typical gregarious pol, Davis appears to be completely uninterested in people. As a former Davis staffer put it to the Orange County magazine OC Metro, Davis is “not the type of individual who wants to get to know you. He’s interested in what you produce, but not interested in you.”
Part of Davis’ strategy to withstand a recall election is an attempt to paint the effort as anti-democratic, calling it “a devious plan to undo the express will of the electorate last November.” (Never mind how fatuous it may be to call a statewide election undemocratic.) Democrats will probably try to conflate Davis’ recall with the GOP-led impeachment of Bill Clinton and the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision as indicative of a general Republican distaste for the popular will of the voters.
More important, however, Davis and his team may have found the person they can run against, saving Davis from having to run for anything. Rep. Darrell Issa, the only politician so far to declare himself a candidate in a potential recall election, is bankrolling the petition drive by Davis’ opponents—he’s donated $700,000 so far out of his more than $100 million fortune. Although he’s a social conservative, Issa is showing a Davis-like ability to be on all sides of every issue, telling the Los Angeles Times this week about the federal assault-weapons ban: “If we were to undo it, it would simply make it more of a failure.” But despite Issa’s best efforts, it should be easy for Davis to tar him as the latest in the long line of millionaires who have tried to take him on. (Al Checchi, Jane Harman, Richard Riordan, and Bill Simon unsuccessfully spent more than $75 million of their own money trying to beat Davis in various elections.)
“This is not going to be Gray Davis versus an opponent with no name,” promised Davis’ political aide Garry South to The Nation last year, before the fall campaign against Simon. And you can bet the recall won’t end up being Gray Davis versus no one, either. Instead, it will turn out to be Issa versus that old victorious standby, None of the Above.