Can Carly Close the Deal?
A wrecked economy and an arrogant incumbent put California into play for GOP.


Katrina Trinko

For California Republicans and right-leaning independents, casting a vote in a statewide or presidential election is generally a quixotic act, a meaningless protest in a state that has voted for the Democratic presidential and senatorial candidates every year since 1992. Statewide offices as well tend to be dominated by Democrats. And while there are about 7.5 million registered Republicans, there are nearly 17 million registered Democrats.

But this year, there is a sense that the improbable might happen. Several recent polls show that Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina is tied with, or trailing only a few points behind, Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer. With the election eight days away and Boxer having reached 50 percent in only one of October’s polls, there remains a decent chance that Fiorina could make up those last couple of points and win.

“It’s certainly different for Barbara Boxer, because she hasn’t had a well-funded, strong challenger,” says California GOP strategist Wayne Johnson. “She’s never had a challenge like this.”

Among the nation’s most strongly disliked politicians, Sen. Barbara Boxer nonetheless deserves special recognition for her vote-getting abilities. In her past three Senate runs, she has defeated by her opponent by 10 to 20 points every time. She has had fortunate timing. In 1998 she benefited from sharing a ballot with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gray Davis, who won by nearly 20 points, while in 2004 she got a boost from John Kerry backers. Her opponents have helped: 1992 GOP candidate Bruce Herschensohn was revealed a few days before a tight-fought election to have visited a strip club, while 2004 opponent Bill Jones never raised enough to even run a television ad.

But don’t mistake Boxer’s electoral success for validation of her affability or political deftness. Even her ideological compatriots don’t think she has those qualities. The Los Angeles Times endorsed Boxer but wrote of “an assertiveness that often is perceived as arrogance,” and “hope[d] her fourth term will be marked by less bluster and more bipartisan achievements.” The San Jose Mercury News also endorsed Boxer but conceded, “We wish Boxer were less strident. This trait has cost her support for some important legislation and has damaged her ability to provide leadership in the Senate.” The San Francisco Chronicle refused to endorse either candidate this year, editorializing that Boxer was “an ineffective advocate for causes we generally support,” adding that Boxer’s “most famous moments on Capitol Hill have not been ones of legislative accomplishment, but of delivering partisan shots.”

“Over half of Californians are unsatisfied with Barbara Boxer,” said Jon Fleischman, a former executive director of the California GOP. A recent Fox News poll showed that 52 percent of Californians have an unfavorable view of Boxer.

But Fiorina’s unfavorable ratings in the poll were about the same, at 51 percent. And in recent weeks, Boxer has campaigned fiercely, running ads that slam Fiorina for her decisions to lay off 30,000 workers and outsource some jobs during her time as CEO of Hewlett Packard. Boxer has also worked to make the social issues more prominent in voters’ minds, frequently touting her own abortion-rights absolutism in contrast to Fiorina’s pro-life positions. A new Boxer ad reminds Californians that Sarah Palin endorsed Fiorina.

The attacks present a difficult challenge for Fiorina, a two-pronged assault on her message about job creation and her refusal to make social issues a pivotal part of the campaign. “Fiorina is unabashed about her belief in the sanctity of life, but she doesn’t wear it on her sleeve, and she doesn’t put in her campaign literature,” says Fleischman.