The direct primary election was one of the political reforms that California – and other states – adopted during the Populist era a century ago as an antidote to political parties, which were seen as “vessels of corruption” that thwarted popular will.
California went even further with “cross-filing,” which allowed candidates, regardless of party identification, to seek nominations of both major parties.
Cross-filing’s major beneficiary was Earl Warren, a nominal Republican who was elected governor three times, and the state’s longest-serving governor until Jerry Brown emerged for the second time.
In 1946, Warren sought and won the nominations of both his party and the Democrats for re-election to a second term and, not surprisingly, rang up a 90 percent re-election tally later that year.
Cross-filing was repealed 13 years later, mostly because liberal Democrats saw it as an impediment to creating a stronger party. One result was that while California has since elected both Democrats and Republicans as governor, none has approached Warren’s 90 percent landslide.
Generally, the winners garner somewhere in the mid-50s and win by around 10 percentage points.
Among recent governors, Republican incumbent George Deukmejian rang up the biggest margin, 60.5 percent, in 1986, defeating Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley a second time.
Brown, who won two terms as governor in the 1970s, returned to the governorship in 2010 with 53.9 percent of the vote, about the standard margin.
All of this history is background for a proposition that Brown may be poised this year to pass Deukmejian’s 1986 mark and win re-election by the biggest margin since Warren’s never-to-be-repeated 90 percent 68 years ago.
Brown, who formally announced Thursday, has clearly found the political sweet spot – liberal on social issues and tight with the public’s buck – and enjoys strong approval ratings. Moreover, he already has $18 million in his re-election campaign fund and the two Republicans to offer themselves, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly and financier Neel Kashkari, have very little name identification and even less money.
Finally, the public’s political mood has been improving because the state’s economy has been improving, albeit slowly and unevenly.
Brown’s armor is not bereft of chinks. His pet bullet train and Delta tunnel projects are stalled and his realignment approach to prison overcrowding could blow up if a felon who otherwise would be behind bars commits some especially heinous crime. But he’s already insulated himself by implying that federal judges made him do it.
So how high could Brown’s margin go?
An educated guess would be 65 percent and, if events continue to favor him, perhaps in excess of 70 percent. That would certainly put him in the history books.
Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Reach him as firstname.lastname@example.org.