Quack Aftershocks?

Hours after California State Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush resigned amid scandal, the Web site for GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush still posted a year-old press release with the headline, “Top Statewide Republicans Endorse George W. Bush.” It mentioned Bill Jones, the Secretary of State who threw his support behind Bush rival John McCain last spring, and Quackenbush, who is accused of spending money meant for earthquake victims to further his own political aspirations.

“You can be sure we’ll be tapping them for their wisdom and know-how,” said Bush in the 1999 release.

What a difference a year makes. The question now is what difference will Quackenbush’s resignation make, not only to Bush’s campaign, but also to the GOP’s future in the state. The photogenic 46-year old insurance commissioner was considered a contender for the governor’s office, now held by Democrat Gray Davis.

“It’s a problem and that’s why they desperately were moving to get this guy out of here,” says Bob Mulholland, a campaign adviser for the California Democratic party. “It’s devastating to have that guy hanging around your neck.”

Quackenbush allowed six major insurance companies, who were facing billions of dollars in potential penalties in the wake of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, to donate money to a non-profit organization instead of directly to those affected by the quake. The earthquake victims have yet to see any of the money, but hundreds of thousands of dollars went to causes related to Quackenbush, including a football camp attended by his children.

Mulholland says the Quackenbush story has received wide coverage in key markets such as Los Angeles, which bore the brunt of the Northridge quake. He anticipates the Democrats will highlight the scandal in mailers before the November elections. “It’s gonna hurt the Republicans in the fall.”

Sal Russo, a longtime Californian Republican strategist, sees no potential impact on the elections; predicting the public will see this as a mistake committed by an individual holding a relatively obscure position. “It’s not a very partisan office.” As for the loss of a viable GOP candidate, Russo commented, “his advantages were not anything to write home about.”

Stuart DeVeaux, Communications Director for the California Republican Party, says the democrats have no ground to use the issue against them in the fall. “If we’re going to talk about honor and dignity, no democrat should step forward,” he said, noting Bill Clinton’s impeachment and the campaign fundraising investigation surrounding Vice-President Gore.

DeVeaux stressed that the party remains focused on other races. “Quackenbush is not up for re-election this cycle.” The outcome of the 2000 elections will hae more impact on the future of the party than the resignation of Quackenbush will, said DeVeaux.

“They’re thinking long-term which is where they have to look now,” because the short-term “doesn’t look good for them,” says UCLA Political Science Professor Ann Crigler.

Crigler believes the republicans are “probably right” to downplay the effect of Quackenbush’s problems on the state party.

In order for the Democrats to capitalize on this issue, Crigler says that they will have to “find a way to generalize it beyond Quackenbush” and frame it as a republican failure.

Right now, she said, “I don’t think they have much of a case."