Just like that, the Republican Senate primary in California has a new front-runner, and another traditionally Democratic seat is in play.
Tom Campbell, the 57-year-old former congressman who had been running for governor, ejected less than two weeks ago out of that high-spending contest and parachuted into the Senate race, which already had two serious Republican candidates, in Carly Fiorina and Chuck Devore.
In the last week, Campbell has come out ahead of both Fiorina and Devore. He also appears to be within striking distance (down by four points in two of three head-to-head polls) of the three-term Democratic incumbent, Sen. Barbara Boxer.
Especially in the wake of the loss of Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts, the Boxer campaign knows it has a fight on its hands.
“We’ve been preparing for a tough race given the tough economic climate and the fact that we’re running in an off year,” said Boxer campaign spokeswoman Rose Kapolczynski. “But Massachusetts is just another reminder that you can’t take anything for granted.”
Boxer led Campbell 45 percent to 41 percent in a PPIC poll released Thursday. Campbell, in turn, led Fiorina and Devore with 27 percent to their 16 percent and 8 percent, respectively. A Field poll released last week showed Campbell with a 30 to 25 lead over Fiorina, with Devore receiving only six percent.
Campbell, who dropped out of the governor’s race in large part because he was being overwhelmingly outspent by Ebay founder Meg Whitman and state insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, has already begun to behave as the front-runner in the Senate race.
In an interview, Campbell eschewed criticism, or much comment at all, about his primary opponents, and focused his fire on Boxer, who he said has been “just awful” on the issue he says will matter most to voters: spending.
Boxer, he said, “has been able to beat her Republican opponents [in the past] by focusing on social issues.”
“She won’t be able to do that with me. The focus I bring is economics and her record there is terrible,” Campbell said.
He touts ratings from groups such as the National Taxpayers Union, which gave him very high marks throughout his congressional career, spanning two congressional districts through most of the 1990s. He contrasts that with Boxer, who he said has been “one of the biggest spenders in the entire Congress her entire career.”
Campbell, a social liberal who supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage, may be vulnerable in the primary with conservative “value voters.” But that is not where Fiorina and Devore are choosing to attack him.
Fiorina, the 55-year-old former Hewlett Packard chief executive, breast cancer survivor and one-time potential vice presidential pick for John McCain, has begun to circulate a memo headlined, “Tom Campbell: No Fiscal Conservative. “ It outlines what she describes as Campbell’s support for numerous tax increases.
Aides to Devore, the 47-year-old state assemblyman who is aligned with the Tea Party movement, say neither Campbell nor Fiorina are fiscal hawks.
“Tom Campbell’s not a conservative. Carly Fiorina’s definitely not a conservative,” said Devore spokesman Josh Trevino. “Tom Campbell, to his credit, is not pretending to be a conservative, except on fiscal matters.”
In particular, Fiorina and Devore have criticized Campbell for proposing temporary tax increases during his time in 2004 to 2005 as director of California’s department of finance. And they criticize him for supporting Proposition 1A, which was on a special ballot last May.
The measure, which was defeated, would have extended increases in the state’s sales tax, income tax and vehicle license fees for two more years, in an attempt to bring in $16 billion in revenue.
Campbell has also proposed a 32-cent gas tax increase to save teacher jobs.
“Campbell has repeatedly touted himself as a ‘fiscal conservative,’ yet his record reflects a far different picture that includes supporting higher taxes and increased government spending,” said Fiorina spokeswoman Julie Soderlund.
Trevino said: “Tom has been out there supporting billions in tax hikes for the past year. And that’s not going to fly in 2010.”
Campbell, in an interview with The Daily Caller, defended his choices. He said that while “temporary tax increases” are sometimes necessary at the state level, he has never proposed raising taxes to close deficits at the federal level, because there are “much greater areas for cutting … much greater amounts that are not necessary.”
Indeed, Campbell has been very specific in detailing where he would cut from the federal budget.
“The state is different,” he said. “State government, when revenues fall suddenly, can’t print money, can’t send children out of school, have to run the prisons, and that’s why Republican governors have proposed a balance in the budget, and I did the same.”
Campbell said that if he does win the June 8 primary, he would “absolutely “embrace the Republican label. Many have said Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown ran away from the affiliation during his campaign.
“I have proudly been elected as a Republican six times, and in each of those cases in a district that had more Democrats than Republicans,” Campbell said.
He calls President Obama’s economic policy “disastrous” and “extremely dangerous.”
Obama, Campbell said, “appears to have no realization of the limits of the federal government and appears to have no hesitation to spend money that we don’t have,” pointing to the administration’s desire to use money from the $700 billion TARP fund for spending rather than paying down the debt.