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Scott Brown effect: Could Senator Barbara Boxer lose California?

Incumbent Senator Barbara Boxer of California has lost a double-digit lead in the polls since January in the race for her reelection. Political analysts say such voter restlessness so early in the race may mean change is on the horizon.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / March 18, 2010

California Senator Barbara Boxer speaks at a news conference Wednesday on Capitol Hill. The latest poll has her statistically tied with two of the challengers for her Senate seat.

Harry Hamburg/AP

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Los Angeles

The dramatic shift in poll numbers in the California Senate race – a surge for former US Rep. Tom Campbell for the GOP nomination and a double-digit drop for Senator Barbara Boxer (D) since January – has serious national implications, according to political analysts.

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A California Field Poll released Thursday shows Mr. Campbell running ahead of businesswoman Carly Fiorina by six points and Assemblyman Chuck DeVore by 19 points among likely GOP primary election voters.

Perhaps more important, say analysts, is that more voters now have an unfavorable than favorable view of the incumbent Ms. Boxer, and she is essentially tied when matched against Campbell (44 to 43 percent) or Ms. Fiorina (44 to 45 percent).

Poll director Mark DiCamillo told the Sacramento Bee that “the tenor of political discourse” has clearly changed in California since Republican Scott Brown registered an upset victory in the Massachusetts Senate race in January. Others agree.

“The fact that three-term Barbara Boxer is in such deep trouble early in an election year is a warning signal to both Democrats and long-time incumbents,” says Larry Sabato, Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “The voters are restless and in a surly mood. Wherever the country is going this year, California could get there first.”

Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield Minn., agrees that the state poll's implications are national.

“The unpopularity of the current Congress is affecting races all over the nation. This has given the GOP a major boost in California and other states as the November elections approach. The national unpopularity of Democrats is now hurting the competitive standings of once-safe incumbents like Boxer.” Inside California, says Schier, the GOP has gotten some much needed optimism about their standing in statewide races. Now, he says, “the GOP may have a future in statewide Senate races after a long string of decisive defeats.”

Others are calling the Boxer race a key litmus test on the implications of the US Supreme Court’s recent decision on independent expenditures in the Citizens United case, which President Obama criticized in his Jan. 27 State of the Union address.

“This will be one of the first big tests of the implications of the Citizens United decision,” says Jessica Levinson, political reform director for the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS). “I think the public should be looking to see whether corporations and labor unions are now willing to dump more money into the political marketplace to try to sway this important election.”

Levinson agrees with political scientist Matthew Kerbel from Villanova University and others that it’s important to remember that it is still very early in the election cycle – more than two months before the primary – and that 40 percent of Republicans remain undecided.

“It’s very very early,” says Mr. Kerbel. “It’s certainly a clear indication that the GOP is in position to regain control of the US Senate. That is numerically tough to do, but there is no way it can happen without California. This keeps that possibility open.”

“There are 8 months to go before the election, so things can change, particularly if the economy is in recovery mode,” says Robert Stern, president of CGS. “Also, the health care debate will have ended, one way or the other, and people may be feeling somewhat better about Congress and their members.”

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