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?”
Whitman and Brown, though they’ve held center stage, haven’t evoked as much passion from partisans. Although the two disagree on some key issues (particularly how to reform education and how much to retrench public employee pensions), their race has turned less on policy than experience. Like most corporate crossovers, Whitman says she’ll run government more like a business and condemns her opponent as a career politician, even reprising the unflattering nickname he acquired during his earlier tenure as governor.
“I’ve run and managed large organizations,” Whitman said in an interview on Saturday after a tour of an urban shopping mall in Los Angeles’ Koreatown that could have been airlifted from Seoul. “I’ve created jobs. I have spent my entire career in the job creation business while Gov. Moonbeam has spent his entire career in politics.”
Brown, hearing a different beat as always, has welcomed the comparison and sought to flip it against Whitman. He has argued that his long experience in government equips him to untangle the state’s chronic budget woes. “I won’t have to receive on the job training,” he insists. In a Rove-like bit of campaign jujitsu, Brown has sought to convert his opponent’s greatest strength into a weakness: He links Whitman to the outgoing Schwarzenegger, another political outsider who arrived in Sacramento with great expectations, but is leaving with abysmal approval ratings even after some landmark legislative successes.
Mike Murphy, Whitman’s senior strategist, scoffs that Brown’s team “have hypnotized themselves into a simplistic mantra-Arnold is unpopular, therefore a politician is what people want.” Yet in the Times/USC survey, Brown was the only one of the four major contenders with a net positive favorability rating.
The Senate race is much more of an ideological cage match.
Fiorina opposes legal abortion, supports a ballot initiative to suspend the state’s pioneering greenhouse gas reduction law, backs expanded drilling for oil off the California coast, and endorsed Arizona’s tough state immigration law. Boxer takes the opposite position on each issue. Fiorina’s views on these questions are well to the right of Republicans who have won statewide races in recent years: Even her ticketmate, Whitman, disagrees with her, and so does the Golden State's green-friendly and pro-choice GOP governor, Schwarzenegger.
“If Boxer is defeated, it’s because voters took jobs over social issues for the first time in California,” says Hoffenblum.
Economy eroding Democrats' edge
That’s a possibility because of widespread economic discontent in a state where unemployment stands at 12.4 percent, foreclosures are rampant, and the state budget is, like recent Los Angeles Dodgers seasons, an annual disaster.
Democrats have dominated California politics since the late 1990s by building an upstairs-downstairs coalition: college-educated white voters combined with striving minorities. But the economy has left California Democrats exposed to the same currents threatening the party elsewhere.
Participation by minority and especially young voters is as crucial to the Democratic coalition here and the question of whether they will turn out in anything like 2008 numbers is just as much in doubt. It was telling, and more than a little defensive, that actor Jamie Foxx, warming up the young crowd at last Friday’s USC rally, led the audience in a chant of “we’re not exhausted.”
The most recent polls from the LA Times and the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California each show Brown holding a substantial 12 percentage point lead over Whitman among college-educated whites, and Boxer maintining a mid single-digit lead over Fiorina with them, according to results both organizations provided to National Journal.
But each survey also showed whites without a college education, as in other states, moving sharply toward the Republicans, particularly Fiorina.
Veteran GOP operative and former Reagan speechwriter Ken Khachigian, who is advising Fiorina, says that dynamic will produce strong showings for her in less affluent inland regions, like the San Joaquin Valley and the “inland empire” of San Bernardino and Riverside.
“It’s the ‘uppity’ college-educated people that are a problem -- they are mostly moderate to liberal,” he says. Whitman’s campaign reports a similar pattern in its own polling.
Brown and Boxer are better positioned to withstand these developments than Democrats elsewhere because the state’s demography is tilted so strongly toward them. California's population has a greater percentage of college-educated white-collar workers than the Midwestern and Southern states that are looking especially bleak for Democrats. And even if minority turnout slips from 2008, those strongly-Democratic voters will probably still constitute about a third of the electorate next week, much more than the national average.
Both races could experience more twists before the end.
In the Senate contest, Democrats believe Fiorina’s greatest vulnerability is her record of laying off workers at HP and outsourcing jobs abroad; Boxer last week aired a powerful ad with former HP employees delivering those charges.
In the governor's race, Whitman this weekend directly addressed voter discontent with a dramatic closing ad. She faces the camera and begins with an unusual confession: “I know many of you see this election as an unhappy choice between a long time politician with no plan for the future and a billionaire with no government experience.”
Meanwhile, the sophistication and virtually bottomless budget of Whitman’s turnout machine could dwarf the Democratic effort and boost both Republican women.
California still leans blue, but it’s a measure of the immensity of the Republican wave gathering this year that even many local Democrats can't be assured that it won’t reach all the way to the Pacific.
Scott Bland contributed to this article.