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Ron Unz for U.S. Senate

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My Last-Minute Decision to Enter the U.S. Senate Race in California

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Victory Night for Prop. 227 in 1998. Credit: Chris Pizzello/AP

As some of you may have already heard, a few days ago I made a last-minute decision to enter the U.S. Senate race for the seat of retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer in California. I took out my official papers early Monday morning and returned them with the necessary 65 signatures of registered voters on Wednesday afternoon, the last possible day for filing.

I am certainly under no illusions that my candidacy is anything but a tremendous long-shot. Over the two decades that have passed since Gov. Pete Wilson’s Prop. 187 campaign, California has been transformed into what amounts to a one-party Democratic state, with Republicans holding not a single statewide office and barely one-third of the State Legislature; GOP presidential campaigns rarely invest any time or money in hopeless pursuit of California’s 55 electoral votes. With the sole exception of Arnold Schwarzenegger—who was obviously a special case—not a single Republican has won a top-ticket statewide race since 1994, with candidates often losing by 20-25 points despite spending many millions or even tens of millions on their campaigns; and virtually all down-ticket Republican candidates have generally lost by comparable margins.

But the flip-side of this difficult situation is that the California Republican Party is so extremely feeble these days that my entrance into the race would hardly face strong GOP rivals. Neither of the other two Republicans running has ever held any elective office or boasts significant political accomplishments, they were tied at 3% in the most recent polls, and after a full year of campaigning, each had only raised about $50,000. As most readers are well aware, I’m hardly an ultra-wealthy “checkbook” candidate able to spend unlimited sums, but dollars in that sort of range I can easily handle.

The primary factor behind this sudden decision on my part was the current effort by the California Democrats and their (totally worthless) Republican allies to repeal my 1998 Prop. 227 “English for the Children” initiative. Although the English immersion system established in the late 1990s was judged an enormous educational triumph by nearly all observers, and the issue has long since been forgotten, a legislative ballot measure up for a vote this November aims to undo all that progress and reestablish the disastrously unsuccessful system of Spanish-almost-only “bilingual education” in California public schools:

After considering various options, I decided that becoming a statewide candidate myself was the probably the best means of effectively focusing public attention on this repeal effort and defeating it.

An important factor in my decision-making was the strong likelihood that Donald Trump would be the Republican presidential nominee. He and his campaign would almost certainly support keeping English in the public schools, but for obvious reasons he would hardly be the best political figure to be strongly identified with the No campaign. However, if I were a statewide candidate myself, heavily focusing on that issue, my standing as the original author of Prop. 227 would give me an excellent chance of establishing myself as the main voice behind the anti-repeal campaign. I also discussed the possibility of this race with some of my fellow Harvard Overseer slate-members, and they strongly believed that my candidacy would be far more likely to help rather than hurt our efforts, which this was another major consideration in my decision. Furthermore, running for office provides me with an opportunity to raise all sorts of other policy issues often ignored by most political candidates or elected officials.

This last point is one that I have frequently emphasized to people over the years, that under the right circumstances, the real importance of a major political campaign sometimes has relatively little connection to the actual vote on election day. Instead, if used properly, a campaign can become a powerful focal point for large amounts of media coverage on under-examined issues. And such media coverage may have long-term consequences, win or lose.

Just as a minor example, the 65 valid voter signatures I filed on Wednesday afternoon have already generated a bit of media coverage for the November attempt to repeal Prop. 227, which had previously received virtually no attention whatsoever. Even this handful of glancing discussion might mean that ten times as many Californians are now aware of the repeal effort as had been the case a week ago.

In 1998, our Prop. 227 was publicly opposed by President Bill Clinton, the Chairmen of both the California Republican and Democratic parties, all four leaders in the State Legislature, all four candidates for Governor, nearly every newspaper, every political slate, and every union, and we were outspent on advertising by a ratio of 25-to-1. Yet we won with 61% of the vote, probably the biggest landslide of any contested initiative since the legendary Prop. 13 in 1978, and easily outscoring both the previous Prop. 187 and Prop. 209, although each of these had been backed by many millions in television advertising. So the “English” issue is potentially a very strong one. Indeed, a few years later it seems likely that my similar Massachusetts initiative was accidentally responsible for launching Mitt Romney’s political career.

 

At this point, the crucial question is whether my campaign will last three months or eight, namely whether I can make it past the primary on June 7th. Under California’s unusual “top two” voting system, all candidates regardless of party affiliation are placed together on the primary ballot, and whichever two get the most votes go on the general election. As I’ve mentioned, the legacy of Pete Wilson’s Prop. 187 campaign has reduced the once-mighty California Republican Party almost to the ranks of minor party status, and it is quite possible that the November ballot will see a Democrat-vs-Democrat match-up.

The overwhelming favorite in the Senate race is California Attorney General Kamala Harris, a moderately liberal and somewhat bland San Francisco Democrat, who recently received the official Democratic endorsement, drawing nearly 80% support at the state party convention. The most recent statewide poll put her at 27%, far ahead of the 15% going to her Orange County opponent, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who is regarded as something of a loose-cannon and is not particularly popular among her party colleagues. But each of these Democrats was still vastly ahead of the two Republicans in the race, who, as previously mentioned, were tied at just 3% each and had campaign war chests only a tiny fraction of the funds available to Sanchez, let alone Harris.

With one small exception, I have been almost totally out of California politics for over a dozen years, and my name is hardly a household word. So running as a Republican in this very unpromising political landscape, I would certainly place my chances of outpolling Sanchez in the primary and reaching November at considerably less than 50-50, with very long odds against my actually being sworn in as U.S. Senator in January.

Since I’m rather likely to lose, I don’t want to feel guilty about taking people’s money for a hopeless effort, and therefore won’t accept any donations over $99. Given that I’ll be saying some things and taking some positions that very few candidates ever do, donors can mentally budget their $99 contributions as providing a bit of “ideological entertainment value.” And it’s certainly been a very strange election year, with a Reality TV star having become the towering colossus in the Republican presidential race and a Socialist from tiny Vermont giving Hillary Clinton a huge battle on the Democratic side, so I suppose that anything could happen.

Indeed, the political affiliations of California registered voters are perhaps a little less unpromising than I have so far implied. These days, California registration is 43% Democratic and 28% Republican, but with independents having rapidly increased to 24%. And whereas the two other Republicans in the race are both long-time Republican Party activists and functionaries, rather unlikely to be able to draw significant independent or cross-over support, my obvious status as a complete political outsider with highly eclectic ideological positions and allies might prove potentially enticing to the nearly 60% of Californians who are not registered Democrats and even perhaps a noticeable slice of those who are. The massive national enthusiasm for both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders has certainly demonstrated the considerable popular dissatisfaction with the political establishments of both parties, and all four of my current opponents in this race certainly fall into that latter category.

Furthermore, the public seems to have a great longing these days for “political authenticity,” the sense that a candidate for office is more than merely the synthetic creation of his consultants and donors, robotically repeating his memorized and focus-group-tested slogans and buzzwords. In this regard, at least, I am quite strong, having published over the years a very wide variety of articles on all sorts of political topics, including highly-controversial ones, which because of my intended Harvard Overseer campaign, I recently collected and published as a 700pp book. My views on various policy issues may be dull or inflammatory, but they are certainly my own, and if I said exactly the same thing ten and twenty years ago that I am saying today, I am much less likely to suddenly change my views if I do somehow manage to reach high office. So any voters or donors who support me can feel reasonably confident that they know what they are getting.

With my unplanned candidacy just a few days old, my overwhelming need is merely establishing the rudiments of a plausible campaign. This includes providing a simple campaign website that can conveniently make available the full range of my policy positions and past writings. So this is the current focus of my efforts, and the next few months may be interesting and eventful ones.

(Reprinted from The Unz Review by permission of author or representative)
• Category: English in the Schools • Tags: Ron Unz, The Unz Review