You’re a California Republican and, this being an election year, anxiety is mounting. Your state endures unspeakable economic crises, mostly caused by the union-Democratic axis of Sacramento. Unemployment numbers are higher than the national average, and you’re hearing financial experts declare your deficit-plagued, once-golden state to be in worse shape than—oh the indignity!—Greece.
What to do? You might just be able to keep a Republican governor, never mind that the term of the current one, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is coming to an inglorious end. After all, the Democrats appear poised to nominate Attorney General Jerry Brown. Yes, that Jerry Brown, “Governor Moonbeam” himself, who after three decades wants another shot. You’ve got two exceptional candidates in former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. If they don’t commit mutual destruction before the June 8 primary, you might avert the seventies insanity all over again.
Except that Washington, D.C., now in the hands of the Democratic left, could steer the economy, including California’s pivotal part of it, to grim levels unknown even in the Stagnant Decade. Suddenly, firing the state’s junior senator—which could help deny Vice President Joe Biden a decisive vote in the upper house—looks not only imperative but downright plausible.
In Hollywood’s home state, visuals are everything. Here’s one from a June 2009 congressional hearing: Brigadier General Michael Walsh, answering questions from three-term junior senator Barbara Boxer, politely addresses her as “Ma’am.” At which point a shrewish, hyper-feminist Boxer turns the committee room into an icebox:
Do me a favor. Could you say “senator” instead of “ma’am”? It’s just a thing. I worked so hard to get that title, so I’d appreciate it—yes, thank you.
The video went viral, and even in a state favorably disposed to women’s rights, the Bay Area’s Boxer failed the screen test. California’s voters have lately been holding her approval ratings below 50 percent.
Three GOP challengers now sense that those voters may finally be in a mood to replace this unapologetic tribune of the antiwar, enviro-left, who has spent her last term pursuing a jobs-killing cap and trade scheme.
The first to draw media attention was former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, whose friendship with Senator John McCain throughout the 2008 presidential campaign—and lack of previous political interest—stirred suspicions from conservatives. Before and after her November 3, 2009, declaration of candidacy in an Orange County Register op-ed, Fiorina has devoted herself to allaying those suspicions.
She’s done so, for the most part. And convincingly, as I learned not long ago at a small breakfast gathering in Georgetown. Boxer, she predicted, will try to make the election a referendum on liberal values, with the senator lined up on the progressive side of every issue. The senator imagines most Californians share her views, a dubious assumption in this recession. Fiorina, by contrast, plans to define the issues as jobs, out of control spending, bigger government, higher taxes, and the thicket of regulations Washington plans to layer on top of already burdensome rules.
Fiorina, a breast cancer survivor, relishes a fight with Boxer, who, she notes, routinely manufactured gender issues with which to punch her three previous opponents, all males. Boxer will thus be made to defend the command economy she and her Capitol Hill colleagues are designing against a proven champion of opportunity-creating markets. Fiorina expects to attract more donors from an oppressed business community, recently freed to contribute without limit by the Supreme Court; she has led the way by spending $2.5 million of her own money already.
For the benefit of skeptical pro--lifers, some of whom claim to have espied pro-choice weasel words in various of her statements, Fiorina recently told this magazine she favors overturning Roe v. Wade. If Boxer and the Democratic left are publicly (and predictably) scandalized by that, Fiorina expects to pivot easily to the economy.
With no need to establish conservative bona fides, Irvine assemblyman Chuck DeVore has spent the last year campaigning in both old- and new-fashioned ways. He’s stumped up and down the state, driving himself to the farthest reaches of the red-county interior to pick up support from remote Republican clubs, all along regaling Facebook followers with details of his travels. In early March, despite Fiorina’s own pitch to the activist group, DeVore easily picked up the endorsement of the stalwart right-wing California Republican Assembly.
DeVore, a retired lieutenant colonel in the National Guard and a onetime aide to the late defense secretary Caspar Weinberger, has been a fixture in Orange County politics for more than two decades. (Disclaimer: He and his picture-perfect family are longtime friends of the writer and the writer’s wife, having shared holiday dinners and church pews.) Though a vice president of an aerospace firm, he has spent much of that time in pursuit of elected office.
Arriving in Sacramento in 2004, DeVore quickly became a leading conservative figure, promoting nuclear power and offshore drilling, pushing prison reform, holding the line against taxes. On Valentine’s Day 2009, to the consternation of the governor and the GOP leadership, DeVore resigned his position as chief Republican whip in protest of a $12 billion per year tax increase.
A thoughtful student of history who’s even tried his hand at fiction (he coauthored a novel about a Chinese invasion of Taiwan), DeVore has everything one could want in a U.S. senator, including a Churchillian anecdote about being shot at in Lebanon. He found a brainy communications director named Josh Trevino, who has been trying to position DeVore as the Scott Brown of California.
California, as purple as Massachusetts, does enjoy a renegade history, from Hiram Johnson’s progressives to Howard Jarvis’s tax revolt, and indeed the taxpayers’ association created by Prop 13’s late, curmudgeonly author has endorsed DeVore. The question arises: Does his perpetual pursuit of political office translate into a virtual incumbency, a liability even for so principled a figure?
Enter Tom Campbell, a former congressman from Silicon Valley who’s taught law at Stanford and served as dean of UC Berkeley’s business school. Campbell has sought the same Senate seat before, losing a primary in 1992 to the sainted conservative TV commentator Bruce Herschensohn, who then lost to Boxer.
Campbell, appointed state finance director by Schwarzenegger, appeals to blue voters with his centrist positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. But he suffers from his association with the administration’s handling of the state’s cash. He suffers as well from a perception of opportunism, having come lately from the governor’s race—where he had no hope against the Whitman and Poizner fortunes.
A few days ago the three Senate candidates came together to debate for the first time on Eric Hogue’s Sacramento radio program. His voice quavering and defensive, Campbell spent a chunk of the hourlong event demanding an apology from Fiorina, whose aide Marty Wilson was alleged to have called him anti-Semitic in a private conversation, a charge Wilson stoutly denies. The opening gave Fiorina and DeVore a chance to highlight Campbell’s inconsistent support for Israel and his dubiously cordial relations with Sami Al-Arian, the Florida professor who pleaded guilty to helping terrorists.
For his part, DeVore tried to clobber Fiorina with what looks like over-imaginative opposition research (which may have originated with the Boxer camp). When she headed H-P, goes the accusation, Fiorina allowed another company, tied to H-P contractually, to sell computer equipment to Iran. Turns out, the product was printer ink, not exactly coming under strict export control.
Barbara Boxer can take little comfort from these early round fisticuffs thrown amongst her opposition. A mid-January Rasmussen survey showed her with 46 percent of all California voters against any of the three Republicans. Campbell, then the new entrant, had 42 percent; Fiorina, 43 percent; DeVore, 40 percent. A Field Poll (which historically skews left) taken of likely GOP voters at roughly the same time showed Campbell with 30 percent, Fiorina with 25 percent, and DeVore with 6 percent. Campbell has since damaged himself in the debate.
It’s eight months before the general election, and Californians are restive. Republicans in the state are both anxious about the economy and emboldened by Boxer’s new vulnerability. A Tea Party could get under way, and either DeVore or a freshly combative Fiorina could come across as the next Scott Brown. And Barbara Boxer, despite being a three-term incumbent, could crumble like the Parthenon.
K.E. Grubbs Jr. is a Washington-based writer.