For the first two years of his administration, he was widely popular. But beginning in 2001, a series of events -- energy shortages, a high-tech economic slowdown and chronic budget problems -- slowly undermined his political base.
By 2002, Davis was re-elected against an inexperienced, mistake-prone Republican, Bill Simon, with just 47 percent. Now his critics, mostly conservatives, have launched a bid to recall the governor.
Right now it's a long shot, but not many people have yet paid attention to the recall effort, so another sharp decline in his popularity could be fatal.
Under California law, any elected official can be recalled if 12 percent of the number of voters in the last election sign a petition demanding an election. Since roughly 7.5 million Californians voted in the 2002 gubernatorial election, this recall effort will require the signatures of almost 900,000 registered voters.
Two groups of Republicans -- one led by former Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian and the other by anti-tax crusader Ted Costa -- are submitting recall proposals to the Secretary of State's Office. Those petitions were certified and organizers will have until Sept. 10 to get the 900,000 valid signatures. If they do, the lieutenant governor will call a special election within 60-80 days, most likely on Nov. 4.
There will be two questions on the ballot: A) Should Gov. Davis be recalled; and B) if he is recalled, who should replace him? The second question is a non-partisan "winner-take-all" election. There is no need to obtain 50 percent plus one. Whoever gets the most votes that day is the new governor-elect.
The California Republican Party endorsed the recall at its convention in February, but so far that support has been largely symbolic: state Republicans are almost broke and the Bush administration is ignoring the issue.
The recall movement has almost no money and the state's business establishment is not inclined to support them. This will only go on the ballot if there is legitimate grass-roots sentiment for it. Thus far, there hasn't been the kind of populist wildfire that pushed the tax-cutting Proposition 13 forward.
But two factors will help the recall proponents. First, it's relatively easy to do. The requirement of roughly 900,000 signatures is only one out of 16 registered voters and only 1 out of 36 Californians. Second, talk radio and the Internet can give this idea almost unlimited free publicity. The advanced technology that helped California become the most complex and wealthiest society in the world could be the governor's worst enemy.
Recent in-depth polls by the Field organization and the Los Angeles Times on state issues illustrated both the governor's severe weaknesses -- and also the amount of ground the recall has to go in order to be taken seriously.
To recap briefly, Davis's approval rating took a huge hit in the winter and spring of 2001 when the state's energy crisis hit. In the fall of 2000, California had a multibillion-dollar surplus due to the dot-com boom.
Al Gore carried the state by over 1 million votes despite hardly campaigning here and Davis was mentioned as a serious presidential prospect for 2004, based on his presumed ability to carry Western swing states like Arizona and Nevada.
A wave of "rolling blackouts" due to energy shortages in February 2001 changed all that. In December 2000, the Field Poll gave the governor an approval rating of 34 percent positive.
In March 2001, California Democrats felt confident enough to invade the Republican stronghold of Orange County by holding their state convention there for the first time in party history. But by May 2001, after fears that the state would stop functioning for lack of electricity, Davis's job rating had turned 36 percent to 55 percent negative, an astounding 42-point reversal.
The Times poll showed that just 27 percent of Californians approve of the way Davis is handling his job, while 66 percent disapprove. Last fall, just before he was re-elected, the governor's job ratings were 46 percent positive.
The governor's support had also collapsed to 40 percent or lower among Democrats, Independents, blacks, women and Hispanics, all of whom voted solidly for him in 2002. Former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, who helped realign California with his bad economic luck and divisiveness, hit his low in the recession of 1992 when only 23 percent approved of his performance.
Even when Davis was riding high three summers ago with a 67 percent approval rating, a leading Democratic consultant privately commented that the governor was "respected, not loved." Now he may be neither.
And things will likely get worse because, barring a miraculous economic recovery, Davis will have to do the two most unpopular things for any executive -- cut spending and raise taxes -- to close a $30 billion deficit. All but three states are doing the same, but California's problems are, by far, the biggest.
Since California law requires the budget to pass by a two-thirds vote, Republicans, with roughly 38 percent of the Legislature, will have veto power over the budget this summer. Republican Assembly Leader Dave Cox has declared opposition to the recall, but there's no guarantee he can hold his members in line if the public support for Davis is not there. Republican backbenchers could deliberately sabotage an already desperate budget situation, thus pushing Davis's polls down even further and adding fuel to the recall fire.
No statewide officeholder has been recalled in the last 60 years, but several local officials have, including the scandal-ridden mayor of Los Angeles, Frank Shaw, in 1938. In the 1990s, several Republican Assembly members were recalled after they broke party ranks to support Democratic Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. And last month, several South Gate city officials were booted out after being indicted.
A look back at previous recalls shows that they only work in cases of corruption or partisan betrayal. Simple malfeasance in office hasn't been enough in the past.
There is also an institutional conservatism that would help save any incumbent governor. As the San Diego Union-Tribune commented on Feb. 18: "This editorial page endorsed Davis' opponent for governor. But we see no legitimate grounds for his recall from office. Even to attempt Davis' recall strikes us as a reckless and unwarranted use of the recall provision."
Both the Los Angeles Times poll and private surveys are thus far cool to the recall idea. In early March, a 51 percent majority opposed recalling Davis, while 39 percent favored doing so. And in most cases, when voters have doubts about any change through the referendum process, they vote no. Only among Republicans (57 percent) and self-described conservatives (53 percent) did the recall drive draw majority support. Right now, most Democrats and almost half of independents see the recall as a partisan scheme. And support for the recall declines 13 points when voters are told that it will cost the state over $20 million.
Bill Cavala, a top consultant in California legislative races, said that the polls show that "unless Independents and Democrats join the lynch mob, the effort will fail."
Since Republicans are only 35 percent of the state's registered voters, they'll simply need Democratic votes in order to win anything. The Democratic base is definitely unhappy with Davis, but not ready to throw him out yet. Voters seem to instinctively know that another statewide election -- while the state is on the verge of bankruptcy -- would completely grind the state to a halt.
A good analogy could be made to the Clinton impeachment drama. The voters clearly wanted President Clinton punished for his affair with a White House intern -- but not removed from office. Censure had wide political support. But House Republicans went to the mat and forced through an impeachment bill. The fallout from that scandal ended with House Speaker Newt Gingrich resigning, not Clinton.
However, Davis has been consistently losing popularity since 2001 and as Republican analyst Tony Quinn commented, "sometimes recalls can take on a life of their own." Cavala says that one factor triggering the recall could be a "total failure" in dealing with the budget crisis resulting in basic services like schools, hospitals and law enforcement being shut down.
George Skelton recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "The recall-Gray Davis movement seems dead in the water. But this governor is so disliked and disrespected, nobody but a fool would count out the freebooters gunning for him."
And no incumbent wants to face the voters with a 27 percent approval rating. In the Times poll, 68 percent of Californians believed their state was "on the wrong track." But beyond polls, recall opponents start off with this hard fact: A solid majority, 53 percent of voters, did not support Davis on Election Day 2002.
Only a total meltdown would precipitate a recall. However, this process may have already started as the governor slipped further in the month between the LA Times poll and Field's latest survey: As of April 15, the governor's job disapproval rating was a record-low 24 percent and voters favored recalling him by 46 percent to 43 percent
If the recall qualifies, the various feuds of California politics could get quite medieval. For example, Davis lost a bitter primary to Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 1992. His ads compared Feinstein to convicted tax-cheat Leona Helmsley. (Davis was forced to publicly apologize and promised never to use that consultant again).
The Feinstein camp has never forgiven Davis, and some of her handlers would push her to run. Last year, Davis spent over $5 million on TV ads to defeat former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan in the Republican primary.
Riordan may want some payback against Davis, and he is rich enough to do so without making a single fundraising call. One possible scenario would be the complete collapse of the governor's base, causing numerous big names from both parties to jump in, plus perhaps a few wealthy celebrities. Democrats currently hold every statewide office in California. Only State Controller Steve Westly and Secretary of State Kevin Shelley have ruled out running in a replacement election.
The rest -- Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Attorney General Bill Lockyer, Treasurer Phil Angelides, and Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi -- are keeping their options open. A Democratic activist likened it to an intersection with a broken stoplight (if one driver goes through, everyone else follows) and predicted, that if one Democrat gets in, almost all the others will. Former Secretary of State Bill Jones, the last Republican to hold state office, has offered himself as the conservative option if need be, and Bill Simon could take another crack at it. Among the more sublime, and interesting, possibilities, entertainers Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rob Reiner could run. Both men have successfully sponsored ballot initiatives in recent years: Schwarzenegger, for after-school recreation programs, and Reiner for anti-tobacco programs. A Field Poll last fall showed the two men have good personal ratings.
The recall election could come shortly after "Terminator 3" with Schwarzenegger premieres. This could be a $200 million advertisement for him; will the other candidates get equal time? Some Hollywood insiders speculate that Schwarzenegger will definitely run if "T-3" bombs, and his film career is over.
The fate of the governor tied to summer box-office returns: Talk about "unintended consequences"! Actor and liberal activist Warren Beatty considered running for president in 1999, why not governor in a sweepstakes election?
Something that would have once seemed ridiculous would now have to be deemed possible: Davis served as chief of staff for Gov. Jerry Brown, who left office 20 years ago amid widespread criticism. But Brown has rehabilitated himself as mayor of Oakland and with his high name recognition, could easily win a plurality on a split vote due to support from minorities and liberals.
"Meathead" vs. the "Terminator" with "Gov. Moonbeam" thrown in, only on the Left Coast! If enough candidates run, even Simon could win with just 12 percent to 15 percent.
The key sign to watch is if a heavyweight Democrat joins the rebellion against Davis. That will take the partisan edge off the anti-Davis campaign and force the governor to fight a two-front war: the first to beat the recall, the second to make sure any potential Democratic rivals don't build momentum to remove him from office.
For Davis to be recalled, everything would have to go wrong: The economy would have to collapse, his own party would have to turn against him and there would have to be a credible replacement. Barring a scandal, the odds are against recall.
The guess here is that the recall will not have the momentum to qualify for the ballot due to the fact that deep down, the Bush team doesn't really want it. They would rather run against Davis and his struggles in 2004. Indeed, less than 10 percent of the required signatures have been collected so far. But in California, we've learned to expect the unexpected because as Jerry Brown used to say, "the future is a moving target."
A decade ago, there was a best-seller about the 1934 California governor's race entitled, "The Campaign of the Century." If the recall goes on the ballot and at least one major-league Democrat joins the anti-Davis fight, this will make 2003 the campaign of the millennium. While political junkies will love the entertainment of this spectacle and consultants will get even richer, the fact is that it's likely to be a disaster for the actual governing of the state. During the heyday of the Roman Empire, it was said that politics provided "bread and a circus."
A recall election simultaneously with heavyweight Republican and Democratic replacement candidates would be a circus all right. Whether it would provide even a few crumbs to disgruntled voters is another story.
(Patrick Reddy served as a consultant to California's Assembly Democrats.)