RALEIGH – One of the biggest political stories of the year began yesterday in California when conservative insurgent Bill Simon astounded the state’s political class by handily defeating former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan for the GOP nomination for governor. It wasn’t even close — he got about 50 percent of the vote vs. Riordan’s one-third — but only a few weeks ago the national media had already crowned Riordan as the likely (and reasonably moderate) nominee.
Whether Simon, son of the famous Bill Simon who served as Treasury Secretary and head of the John M. Olin Foundation in its heyday, can defeat weakened incumbent Gov. Gray Davis isn’t the point. Davis apparently doesn’t think so, since he spenta lot of money attacking Riordan during the primary and thus aiding Simon’s come-from-behind victory. Still, what will galvanize Republicans and conservatives across the country is the prospect of a candidate of ideas seeking to reshape his party and lead it back into prominence after a decade of intellectual and political decline.
As my colleague Steven Hayward from the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco put it in a recent National Review Online column, Simon is tapping into the excitement that conservatives once felt for another Left Coast up-and-comer:
Consider the scene. California Republicans, coming off several dismal election cycles, were looking for a strong candidate to field against a vulnerable Democratic incumbent governor who had dealt weakly with several crises in the state. So the party establishment turned to a moderate big-city mayor, who polls showed would run the strongest race for the statehouse.
Meanwhile, an inexperienced conservative upstart emerged as a credible candidate within the GOP, and the Democratic governor got the idea into his head that he would rather run against the “right-wing” upstart than the big-city Republican mayor. So the Democratic governor played around behind enemy lines in the Republican primary, attacking the mayor and boosting the upstart to a win in the GOP primary.
But this story isn’t about this week. It’s about 1966, when Gov. Pat Brown decided to attack San Francisco’s Republican mayor George Christopher before the Republican primary (polls said Christopher would run the strongest race for governor) because Brown decided he’d rather run against Ronald Reagan instead. He got his wish.
We may be seeing the rise of another political star in the improbable candidate of Bill Simon. Of course, if the GOP establishment in California have anything to say about it, the Simon campaign will sputter and die out, leaving the state to the tender mercies of the painfully incompetent Davis.
Still, it should be a fascinating few months.
And here’s your homework assignment. Check out the Simon for Governor website. The Simon effort really seems like a campaign about ideas, not just about personalities, patronage, or political posturing. Throw in a rising Dow and progress against the al Qaeda thugs in Eastern Afghanistan, and you’ve got the makings of a pretty uplifting week.