In the marquee Senate race between three-term Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Republicans sense a golden opportunity.
Recent polling indicates that such optimism is warranted.
A recent Survey USA poll showed Fiorina leading Boxer by two points, 48 percent to 46 percent. The poll shows Fiorina garnering the kind of broad-based support a Republican needs to win in a state as diverse and Democratic as California.
According to a July Field poll, only 41 percent of Californians have a favorable view of Boxer, with 52 percent holding an unfavorable view. Add to that California’s 12.3 percent unemployment rate, and an electorate deeply disaffected with Democratic policies to cure the country’s prolonged economic woes, and it’s easy to see why Fiorina’s business acumen and status as a political newcomer are qualities voters are attracted to.
During her time in the Senate, Boxer has become a liberal icon of sorts, fiercely defending abortion rights, strongly denouncing the Iraq War, and pushing hard for climate change legislation from her perch as chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Boxer has always been elected by comfortable margins. But Boxer faces a much tougher political climate and a far more capable opponent this year. In Fiorina, she must spar with someone of considerable talents and considerable personal wealth, an asset that could come into play during the final days of the campaign.
Fiorina is also getting outside help. The National Republican Senatorial Committee’s decision to buy $1.75 million worth of ad time in the state signaled both a vote of confidence in Fiorina’s abilities as a candidate and a conviction that Boxer is vulnerable.
Yet the push to unseat Boxer remains a tall order. Boxer seems to be relishing the perks that come with incumbency, including an $11 million campaign war chest and the opportunity to campaign with a president who still holds majority approval in the state. However, California’s liberalism may prove to be the biggest electoral challenge for Fiorina, who is a pro-life, pro-gun, pro-Arizona immigration law Republican.
In their highly anticipated debate last Wednesday, both candidates conveyed narratives about themselves and each other that are likely going to define the final two months of the race.
The debate lacked a jaw-dropping moment or vocal fireworks that would alter the immediate dynamics of the race, but it was still entertaining. Both candidates showed a great deal of discipline. Both landed sharp rhetorical jabs. And neither woman showed much regard for the other.
Fiorina was relentless in assailing Boxer’s tenure in Washington. Playing to anti-incumbent sentiment, she cast Boxer as a bitter partisan short on legislative achievements.
When she wasn’t blasting Boxer or touting her success as the executive of a major corporation, Fiorina sought to refute the misconception that her stance on social issues made her too conservative for California voters, rattling off a trifecta of moderate positions that had her expressing support for civil unions, a repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and an immigration law that would enable illegal youths to maintain citizenship through various paths. By night’s end, Fiorina had turned in a performance high on political maturation and low on gaffes.
For her part, Boxer was tenacious in unleashing a series of attacks that caricatured Fiorina as a greedy, failed former CEO whose sympathies lie with millionaires and billionaires rather than the average citizen.
The most scathing attack Boxer unleashed came on abortion, where she characterized Fiorina’s pro-life position as nothing less than sinister.
“If my opponents views prevailed.” Boxer argued, “women and doctors would be criminals, they would go to jail. Women would die like they did before Roe v. Wade.”
Much like Fiorina, Boxer delivered a commendable performance in which she had moments of affability while living up to her reputation as a defender of liberal principles.
A victory under the bright lights of California’s political stage will make Fiorina a national star. All she has to do is overcome a Democratic senator, a president, and a left-leaning electorate.
Aaron Guerrero is a 2009 UC Davis graduate, who majored in political science and minored in history. He formerly interned for Rep. Dan Lungren and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is a freelance writer.