LOS ANGELES-The cardinal rule of Hollywood, as succinctly expressed by screenwriter William Goldman, is that “nobody knows anything.” The same could be said this fall of California’s political drama.
For most of this year, Meg Whitman, the billionaire Republican former chief executive of EBay running for governor, had seemed to hold a better hand than Carly Fiorina, the multi-millionaire Republican former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard seeking a U.S. Senate seat.
Compared to Fiorina, Whitman has spent vastly more of her own money (over $141 million, a record, against $6.5 million for Fiorina); taken more moderate positions closer to the state consensus; and has benefited, in former governor Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown, from an opponent with even more obvious vulnerabilities than Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.
And yet in a late reversal of roles, opinion surveys now generally show Fiorina in a stronger position than Whitman.
Both women trail their Democratic opponents -- by narrow margins in most recent polls, and by much larger deficits in a Los Angeles Times/University of Southern California survey released Sunday. But many leading California Democrats, while not discounting Whitman’s threat to Brown, clearly are more concerned about Fiorina overtaking Boxer in the final lap.
“On the governor’s race it tilts toward Brown and the Senate race is a toss up,” says Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP consultant who now publishes the California Target Book, a non-partisan political tip sheet.
Some Democrats dismiss the idea that either race will be that close in a state that Barack Obama carried by more than three million votes in 2008 and where most public and private polls show his approval rating still slightly above 50 percent.
That camp will take comfort from Sunday’s LA Times/USC survey, which showed Brown leading Whitman 52 to 39, and Boxer besting Fiorina by 50 percent to 42 percent. But most recent surveys have been tighter, with Brown leading Whitman by four to eight percentage points (Republicans insist their internal polls show it closer), and Boxer clinging to a smaller advantage over Fiorina, some within the margin of error.
Boxer more vulnerable?
Several factors explain why Boxer may be more at risk than Brown. One is that the state’s powerful labor movement has focused far more of its fire on Whitman (who wants to end defined-benefit pensions for most new state employees) than on Fiorina. Another is that while the Senate race has unfolded mostly as a referendum on Boxer, Whitman has become the focal point of the governor’s race. That’s partly because of the controversy that erupted late last month around the illegal immigrant she employed as a housekeeper, but mostly because her massive television advertising has made her a constant, and not always welcomed, presence in Californians’ lives.
“Somehow Meg made the campaign about her,” says Bill Carrick, a veteran Democratic consultant.
Brown, though burdened by baggage from a four-decade public career, has also proven a surprisingly nimble and at times personable campaigner; he has survived long enough (when he was first elected governor, Brown succeeded Ronald Reagan) to evolve from frustratingly flaky to ingratiatingly eccentric.
For all of the contests’ surface similarities -- high-tech female Republican CEO vs. venerable California liberal -- the races are running on very different dynamics. The difference was apparent within minutes when Brown and Boxer each appeared before President Obama during his rally at the University of Southern California last Friday.
Still, probably the most important difference between the two races is their contrasting backdrop. “It’s the Washington dynamic versus the Sacramento dynamic,” said a senior Democratic strategist working in the state, who asked for anonymity while discussing the vulnerabilities of the party’s contenders. “Which is to say you’ve got a Democratic president, Democratic Congress and Democratic senator who get blamed, if you will, at the federal level while you have a…Republican governor in Sacramento [Arnold Schwarzenegger] who is extraordinarily unpopular and that hurts Whitman. Boxer gets hurt by the national scene; Whitman gets hurt by the local scene.”
Brown delivered an eloquent but somewhat elliptical speech (he quoted Gandhi) that didn’t really rouse the energetic crowd; Boxer, though more prosaic, stirred much more raucous cheers by pounding on hot-button issues such as abortion, and then linking Fiorina to prominent conservatives from Karl Rove to Sarah Palin. “Even though Sarah Palin says ‘drill baby drill,’” Boxer declared, “Sarah Palin does not speak for California does she?”