Tuesday, January 24, 2012
The Curse of Max Rafferty
At the beginning of 1968 the California Democratic Party had all but given up on winning the U.S. Senate seat up for election that year. It had been in Republican hands since Richard Nixon defeated Helen Gahaghan Douglas in 1950; when Nixon became Vice President in 1953, liberal Republican Thomas Kuchel (pronounced KEE-kul) was appointed in his stead and was re-elected twice with significant bipartisan support. The same was expected the third time around.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the general election. Emboldened by the election of Ronald Reagan as governor two years earlier, conservative Republicans supported a primary challenge to Kuchel by Max Rafferty, the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. Rafferty was a right-wing ideologue and not a terribly pleasant person. He was Superintendent at a time when public education had relatively few problems, so he mostly used the job to try, without much success, to make ideological points. Few people (including Kuchel, to his everlasting regret) took him seriously. Rafferty pulled off a narrow victory in the June Republican primary.
That gave new wings to the Democratic candidate, Alan Cranston. As the low-key, competent, buttoned-down State Controller, he had amassed a decent record in elective office. He wasn’t charismatic, but he wasn’t over the top, like Rafferty, and he won a narrow victory in a year when Richard Nixon carried the country and California.
Having gotten to know Rafferty better during his Senate campaign, the voters tossed him out as Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1970, and a short time afterward he moved to Alabama to take an educational job there. William Coblentz, who served with Rafferty on the University of California Board of Regents, commented that it was a move that raised the average level of intelligence in both states.
Like Marley’s ghost returning at Christmas, Rafferty’s spectre seemed to come back every six years to haunt the Republicans when that seat was up for election. Cranston was a beatable incumbent, but Republicans kept giving him the gift of weak opponents. Two were ultra-conservative ideologues, and one was a moderate who might have had a chance if only he’d been possessed of any sense of politics or campaign tactics. Cranston finally stepped down in 1992 after serving 24 years in the Senate.
That year the seat was wide open for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century, and the Democrats nominated Congresswoman Barbara Boxer. I like Boxer, and if you’ve ever seen her in person, her presence and energy fill the room. Still, she is more liberal than the electorate (though not as much so as Republicans like to claim) and can come across as strident on TV.
Conventional wisdom would say that there is no way she could get elected to the U.S. Senate four times, and conventional wisdom would be wrong. With enemies like the California Republican Party, who needs friends? Every time Boxer has had to face the voters, the Republicans have graced her with an opponent who was either an ideologue, a terrible campaigner, or both. In 2010, an overwhelmingly Republican year, Boxer handily defeated former HP executive Carly Fiorina to win her fourth term.
Outside of the post-Reconstruction South, it has been almost unheard of for one political party to hold a U.S. Senate seat for 50 years, but if Boxer, or some other Democrat, takes that seat in 2016, it will have happened in California. And if it does, I’m guessing that the ghost of Max Rafferty will have a lot to do with it.