In her reelection six years ago, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California was a political powerhouse. As her political biography boasts, “Elected to a third term in 2004, she received more than 6.9 million votes, the highest total for any Senate candidate in American history.”
But times have changed, and now the feisty Boxer, who started her political career in super-liberal Marin County, is scrambling to win a fourth term – in “her toughest election ever,” as Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, puts it.
Nowhere is the race being watched more closely than the White House, which hopes to hold on to as many Democratic House and Senate seats as possible come November. President Obama is scheduled to headline fundraisers for Boxer Tuesday – first a reception at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel, then dinner at the home of billionaire Gordon Getty. The goal is to raise $1.5 million.
It’s a return visit for Mr. Obama. Just last month, he was in Los Angeles for Boxer fundraisers. “November is going to be tough. Barbara is going to have a tough race,” he said at the time. “It's always a tough race if you're an incumbent in this kind of economic environment.”
No easy ride this time
Normally, Boxer might expect to have a fairly easy ride of it. She has plenty of experience and seniority, and Democrats outnumber Republicans by 44 percent to 30 percent in California. Obama won a whopping 61 percent of the vote there in 2008.
There’s the strong anti-incumbent mood in the country, which recently gave the boot to longtime senators Bob Bennett in Utah and Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, plus the “tea party” movement’s added spice and vinegar. California is in financial meltdown, not to mention the US economy clawing its way back to recovery.
Then there’s Boxer’s own personality, seen by supporters as a lively aggressiveness matching her name and by her opponents as an offensive prickliness. (Much was made of her recently insisting that a US general testifying to a Senate panel address her as “senator” and not “ma’am.”)
As Boxer (who faces no Democratic opposition) aims to build up her $9.6 million campaign war chest, three Republicans are fighting it out as the June 8 primary approaches: former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina, former US Rep. Tom Campbell, and California Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, who represents conservative Orange County and is favored by tea partyers.
GOP candidates have their own fight
Polling among the three Republicans is mixed.
A Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll last week had Mr. Campbell leading Ms. Fiorina 37 to 22 percent, with DeVore a distant 14 percent among likely Republican primary voters and the rest undecided. But a SurveyUSA poll Monday had Fiorina ahead at 46 percent, with 23 percent for Campbell and 14 percent for DeVore. The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) has it as a dead heat between Fiorina and Campbell. The three were to have their final debate Tuesday afternoon.
How would Boxer do against either of the likely GOP challengers?
The PPIC poll finds her leading Campbell 46 to 40 percent and ahead of Fiorina 48 to 39 percent in hypothetical matchups.
A Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of likely voters in California in mid-May found Boxer leading Fiorina 45 to 38 percent but “in a virtual tie” with Campbell. “Sen. Barbara Boxer’s numbers are soft, and former Rep. Tom Campbell could give her a serious race if he is the GOP nominee,” writes political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
“The prevailing question is whether Boxer is truly vulnerable,” according to the Cook Political Report. “Given the overall political environment and California voters’ discontent over the direction of the state and its battered economy, polling indicates that there might be an opening for Republicans even in a state as blue as California.”
The Cook organization has California’s US Senate race in the “lean Democratic” category. But political scientist Sabato has switched his from “lean Democrat” to “toss-up.”