California elects a senator and a governor this year. Her voters, however, will not just be passing on a routine group of candidates and issues. First, because nothing about California politics can be called routine; and second, because Richard Nixon is one of the candidates for governor, and the future of his political career is one of the issues.
The Senatorial campaign will have little interest: the Republican incumbent, Senator Kuchel, is expected to run a dull campaign and win easily. The only force which might topple him is the same one which now threatens to scuttle Nixon's hopes almost before they have been launched: other Republicans. Nixon, of course, will also have the problem of tough Democratic opposition from incumbent Governor Pat Brown in November, but like Kuchel, his real troubles are in his own backyard, and they may prove too much for him.
At a meeting of the Young Republican Club two weeks ago, for example, Nixon called for an anti-John Birch Society resolution; he was frankly and unapologetically rebuffed. Having spent many years in the more moderate climate of Washington, Nixon may over-estimate the Society's un-attractiveness to his fellow-Californians; but the contempt the young conservatives showed for the wishes of their party's titular leader indicates more than that there are a lot of Birchsymps among them.
Certainly organizations such as the Birch Society are strong in the State. California, the home of all kinds of moral and intellectual extremists (health-food-addicts, Rosicrucians, nudists and so on), harbors an enormous political lunatic fringe as well. It should be remembered that the Society first received national publicity when it was disclosed that its members included several California congressmen and the publisher of the right-wing Los Angeles Times (now the city's only morning newspaper). And an article published late last year in the Nation reported that the city's regular Republican machine was heavily infiltrated with Birchers (as is, of course, the Young Republican organization).
One of Nixon's opponents in the primary will be an extreme rightist (though not a Birch member) named Joseph C. Shell, now a Los Angeles Assemblyman. Shell is far from the stereotype of rabid radical--he is an attractive ex-fullback at U.S.C., still young, still blond--and he is well-financed since he married an oilman's daughter.
Neither he, however, nor the other announced candidate, ex-Lt. Governor Harold (Butch) Powers, will beat Nixon. They threaten him because they may hopelessly disrupt the still-weak Nixon organization his supporters have been building since his return to the state last year.
Nixon's problems with the extreme right of his party reflect more than an ideological split. Californians reject the give-and-take game which most people consider politics, in favor of much more devious routes to power. The conspiratorial flavor of Birchism, rather than its philosophy, reflects this penchant--as does the elaborate scheme worked out in 1958 by ex-Senator Knowland for putting himself in the Governor's Mansion (and then, presumably, in the White House) and Goody Knight in the Senate. Knowland's scheme crashed around him, and like a defeated putsch-ist he has retired from politics completely.
Nixon has not yet found his footing in these slippery wastes; he has neither chosen issues nor established an image for himself. These failures remind one of his performance in the presidential election, and the results could be equally disastrous for him. Only if Nixon adopts a strong posture can he possibly draw together the two or three Republican parties that now exist, or attract any sizable following among Democrats. Since registered Republicans make up only 40 per cent of the electorate, Nixon will have to repeat his 1960 achievement, when he captured about 25 per cent of the Democratic vote.
This task certainly won't be any easier this year, since President Kennedy has determined to give Nixon the coup de grace, and will fight hard for Brown's election. During his trip to California last week-end, the President delivered another denunciation of extremists, hoping to make Nixon's middle-of-the-road position less tenable by stirring up the doctrinal conflict.
The Kennedy visit also provided Nixon an opportunity to show that he hasn't lost his susceptibility to foot-in-mouth disease. By referring to the President and his family as "carpetbaggers," an attempt to appear a good Californian, Nixon probably offended many Democrats. Kennedy put Nixon in a bad spot for the second time in two days by making an ostentatiously friendly and respectful visit to General Eisenhower.
In the Presidential campaign, Nixon almost managed to get away without ever committing himself. Such a course is impossible in the present fight--because of pressure on him from his own party and the Democrats, and because he knows that this is his last chance. Nixon is not the man to solve his party's problems, and only with its support can he hope to resist the Democratic onslaught. Nixon's race for governor is likely to be the seventh, and last, crisis.