Reagan moved immediately to capitalize on the momentum of the Goldwater speech and began appearing before Republican gatherings in California and elsewhere within weeks of the 1964 election. By 1965, encouraged by conservative political leaders and right-wing businessmen in California, he had decided to run for governor; he formally announced his candidacy early in 1966. His opponent was the incumbent governor, Edmund G. Brown, a popular politician running for his third term. (He had defeated Richard Nixon four years earlier.) Brown spoke condescendingly of Reagan's inexperience and ridiculed his film career. But he was no match for Reagan's homespun magnetism. The Reagan campaign capitalized on popular anger at student demonstrations on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, and it portrayed Brown as an old-fashioned politician out of touch with the people. Reagan, in contrast, presented himself as an ordinary citizen fed up with politics and committed to making government more efficient and accountable. He defeated Brown in a landslide.
Reagan entered office surrounded by conservative political outsiders from southern California, fueled with ideological fervor. But the pressures of politics quickly forced the new administration to compromise. In the end, Reagan's governorship was symbolically radical but substantively conventional. Having inherited a substantial budget deficit from the previous administration, Reagan ordered an across-the-board 10-percent reduction in state spending, only to have to restore funds to a host of programs that were already so lean they could not survive the cuts. Within a year he was pressing for a major tax increase—in part to address the budget deficit, in part to give him a fiscal cushion so that he would not have to ask again. Shaped in the end by Democrats in the legislature, the final bill produced a highly progressive tax increase, the highest in the history of California (or of any other state). Reagan signed it, blaming the irresponsibility of his predecessor. When the tax increases produced a budget surplus in subsequent years, he attributed it to his administration's managerial skill.
In the end, Reagan's budget was, in fact, more than twice as high as Brown's; and while much of that growth was a result of inflation, some of it was because of spending increases in the same programs that conservatives had once vowed to cut or abolish—many of them programs important to some of Reagan's critical constituencies. He worked effectively with the Democratic legislature on a series of tax and welfare reforms that were not at all consistent with the more radical agenda of Reagan's most conservative supporters. He oversaw one of the largest (and most expensive) water projects in the nation's history. And despite his harsh rhetorical attacks on the University of California for its alleged coddling of radicals, his administration was generally supportive of the system and helped it to grow. State government under Reagan, according to Gary G. Hamilton and Nicole Woolsey Biggart, did not "shrink and allow private citizens to handle their own affairs," as Reagan had once promised. "Instead government entrenched itself in many ways as a strong, effective force in California society" ( Governor Reagan, Governor Brown [New York, 1984], p. 214).
Reagan's governing style in California was much like the style he would later adopt in the White House. He was an effective communicator of his administration's broad goals (vague though they often were), and he relished the ceremonial aspects of his job. But he was oddly passive in the day-to-day running of the government. His days were rigidly organized around the typed schedule his assistants always prepared for him and from which he rarely departed. He ceded operating responsibility for his office to a series of energetic aides, many of whom were as inexperienced as he was. (Lyn Nofziger, his first chief of staff in Sacramento, later claimed that the Reagan administration had "materialized out of thin air with no political background, no political cronies and no political machine," and that the new governor was surrounded by "novice amateurs," among them Nofziger himself.)
Reagan disliked bureaucratic conflict, so he permitted his aides and cabinet officers to work out their disagreements among themselves; the governor would then usually ratify a compromise he had played no role in creating. He also relied heavily on existing state agencies. That was one reason his record was so much more moderate than his rhetoric. He left control of education and the environment, for example, to Democrats of progressive inclinations, and his record in both areas pleased many liberals. Reagan won reelection comfortably in 1970 over the Democratic Speaker of the California House, Jesse Unruh, but his victory margin was considerably smaller than it had been four years before. Perhaps that was because he was by then no longer a crusading outsider. He was an incumbent governor with an essentially moderate record.