The Schwarzenegger Effect: How California's Recall Effort Worked Out for Republicans Last Time Around

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Arnold Schwarzenegger and then-wife Maria Shriver celebrate his recall election victory over then-Gov. Gray Davis on Oct. 7, 2003. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

California Republicans were ecstatic in 2003 when voters ousted Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with a Republican movie star: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Since his reelection in 2006, no Republican has won statewide office in California, a slump the state GOP hopes to break in next month's gubernatorial recall election.

Yet a review of Schwarzenegger's two-term record is decidedly mixed when it comes to both Republican power and priorities. Since his recall win in 2003, the GOP's share of the electorate has shrunk from 35% to 24%, and Democrats now control a supermajority of the state Legislature. Meanwhile, some of Schwarzenegger's signature policy achievements — including on climate change and political reform — remain unpopular with many Republicans.

But at the beginning, says former Schwarzenegger communications director Rob Stutzman, even those who hadn't voted for the movie star were excited.

"I wouldn't say the Republican party completely coalesced around him [during the recall campaign]," Stutzman said. "But Schwarzenegger captured the imagination — even beyond Republicans — of the potential of him. And once he was governor, the party did consolidate around him for quite a while."

It wasn't just Davis’s unpopularity or Schwarzenegger’s Hollywood status that propelled the actor and former pro bodybuilder to victory in 2003. Schwarzenegger capitalized on his position as an outsider — promising to blow up boxes and upend business as usual in Sacramento. He pledged to repeal the so-called car tax and balance the state’s budget, but not raise other taxes.

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Looking back, though, political insiders say the excitement was palpable among the broader political community when Schwarzenegger first arrived in Sacramento.

"It's kind of hard to imagine the enthusiasm that everyone felt having someone like Gov. Schwarzenegger, the Terminator, show up and claim he was going to fix the state, he was going to clean house and he was going to restructure government so it worked more like a business," recalled Sam Blakeslee, a Republican elected to the Assembly shortly after Schwarzenegger took office.

Blakeslee, who eventually became the Assembly Republican leader before being elected to the state Senate, says it wasn’t just Republicans who were optimistic.

"I remember talking to lobbyists and fellow Republicans, even Democrats, who were genuinely excited to see what he could get done," he said.

But governing is different from campaigning, and Schwarzenegger soon found himself faced with a massive budget deficit, in part because he repealed that car tax.

In his first year, Schwarzenegger had political wind at his back, and managed to convince voters to borrow $15 billion to close the spending gap. But one year later, his effort to go around the state Legislature with another series of ballot measures was crushed by organized labor, which unleashed a ferocious opposition campaign. Voters resoundingly rejected Schwarzenegger's package that, among other things, would have curbed state spending and weakened public employee unions.

After losing that ballot fight, Schwarzenegger brought more powerful, experienced Democrats into his administration — including a new chief of staff.

"Well, that was the point when a lot of Republicans broke with Schwarzenegger," said Blakeslee, who noted that the former governor didn't just have Democratic advisers — he actually listened to them.

"Arnold embraced their perspective," he said. "And a lot of Republicans were aghast and deeply confused because they literally thought they had voted for and had one type of governor at the top of the ticket and woke up the next day and found out he was someone altogether different."

Budget fights with both parties in the state Legislature would color Schwarzenegger’s entire tenure —but another former Republican Assembly leader during that time, Connie Conway, said she saw his willingness to listen to all sides as one of his major strengths.

Conway credits Schwarzenegger for raising up the voices of minority Republicans during budget negotiations.

"I always appreciated the fact that I feel that Gov. Schwarzenegger was inclusive. Everybody's opinion did matter ... It's part of his DNA," she said.

But things got a lot more complicated between the governor and the GOP near the end of his first term. Months before he won reelection, Schwarzenegger signed Assembly Bill 32, California's landmark climate change bill, which was passed largely on party lines and set the stage for the state's cap and trade program. It remains deeply controversial among Republicans.

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Still, Blakeslee notes that Schwarzenegger was able to get some GOP lawmakers on board with other carbon-reduction legislation. He calls the issue one of Schwarzenegger's "chief achievements."

"And he actually created a space where there could be moderate Republicans who could bring forward reforms or proposals to improve the environment," he said. "He actually did a pretty good job of keeping a cohort of moderate Republicans in a position where they could work with him because he did take their input."

But it was what happened after Schwarzenegger won reelection in 2006 that angered GOP stalwarts the most, says Stutzman, his former communications director: He reneged on a campaign promise not to raise taxes.

"He ran for reelection ... [and] promised not to raise taxes, but he did raise taxes," Stutzman said. "So, yeah, at that point, I think Republicans were getting frustrated."

And then there were Schwarzenegger's successful political reform efforts — achievements that may have undercut an already waning Republican party in California.

First, in 2008, Schwarzenegger wrote a ballot measure that took legislative redistricting powers away from lawmakers and put them in the hands of an independent commission. Then, in 2010 — as he prepared to leave office — Schwarzenegger backed a ballot measure that ended party primaries in California and allowed the top two candidates to move on to the general election, leaving neither party with a guaranteed spot in the runoff.

Allan Zaremberg, CEO of the California Chamber of Commerce, said the initiatives did what Schwarzenegger and other backers had wanted: They opened the door to electing more centrist politicians.

Whether the changes were positive for the Republican Party is another question.

"We, as well as the governor, were concerned about making sure that the lines were fairly drawn to represent communities of interest as opposed to, you know, 'Can you protect my seat,' which happened all the time when you had incumbents drawing the lines," he said. "You want to have as many people participate in the election as possible and get the candidate who appeals to the majority of the voters."

Stutzman also sees those measures as a win because they stripped power from both political parties. He said Schwarzenegger achieved other important victories, too, like reforming workers’ compensation laws.

"By and large, I put Arnold up there, his Republican governor record, with just about any Republican governor we've had," he said.

As of now, he’s also the last GOP governor California has seen.