A Boxer vs. A Muscleman in 2010?

Will the Terminator-turned-the-Governator turn into the Sen-â-tor? Although I can’t predict the ultimate outcome, I suspect the former muscleman will indeed take on U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2010.

The standard line among Republican insiders is that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, accustomed to being on center stage as a bodybuilder, movie star and governor, would never settle for being “one of 100.” But that analysis underestimates the allure of the United States Senate as the “world’s most exclusive club,” and as a platform for extending Arnold’s burgeoning reputation as a globetrotting political leader.

This would not be Mr. Smith goes to Washington; it would be Mr. Olympia goes to Washington. A Sen. Arnold Schwarzenegger from the biggest state in America would never be just one out of a hundred anything. He would not labor in national obscurity like, say, a Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, or the other senator from that state before his now-infamous bathroom break at the Minneapolis airport. He would still be Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of the world’s best-known personalities. And as a senator, he would be a bona-fide elected representative of the United States of America — the only way that will ever happen, since he can never run for president or vice president.

In addition, there is a close historical parallel. Dianne Feinstein never made any bones about the fact she wanted to be governor in the worst possible way, and was the Democratic nominee for that office in 1990. In 1998, rumors were rife that she was thinking about going again. President Bill Clinton even personally called the senator in January of that year, urging her to run due to his view that the other potential candidates at the time — Lt. Gov. Gray Davis and corporate takeover artist Al Checchi — couldn’t win. But ultimately she demurred, having decided she rather enjoyed being the Distinguished Senior Senator from the Great State of California.

Although the diminutive Boxer is an energetic and aggressive campaigner, and has one of the best direct-mail fundraising operations of any California politician, she is relatively untested as a stand-alone candidate against a proven vote-getter. In 1992, her first run for the Senate, she benefited from Clinton’s huge win at the top of the ticket in California. It was also the much-vaunted “Year of the Woman,” and running in tandem with the popular Feinstein, who remained well known from her close governor’s race two years earlier, helped Boxer immeasurably. Still, Boxer could well have lost if not for the last-minute revelation that her novice conservative opponent was a habitué of girlie joints, and if Feinstein had not campaigned actively with Boxer once her own race was in the bag.

In 1998, Boxer’s first re-election campaign, she was carried along in the slipstream of a huge Democratic victory in California. Gubernatorial nominee Gray Davis won a 20-point landslide, carrying into office with him every statewide Democratic nominee but two, both of whom were running against Republican incumbents in those respective offices. Boxer’s opponent, state Treasurer Matt Fong, looked competitive at first, but imploded after a number of amateurish missteps and unrelenting Boxer attacks.

In 2004, Boxer again enjoyed the good fortune of running in a presidential year in which the Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry, swept California by double digits. In addition, she drew as her GOP opponent the lackluster former secretary of state, Bill Jones, who had been wiped out in his own party primary for governor in 2002, running as the only Republican then in statewide office. Jones, in a first for a modern-day California senatorial candidate, never ran a single broadcast TV ad, and even pulled his own money out of the race in the last few weeks. Oh, yeah, and his Web site also was shut down by its Internet provider for massive illegal spamming.

In 2010, however, Boxer would be more on her own, with no Democratic presidential candidate to buck up turnout or keep the spotlight off of her — and no Feinstein on the ballot, either, as in ’92. It could also be the first mid-term election under a new Democratic president, in which the governing party historically loses seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

No matter his current intentions (and he may not even yet know what he wants to do come 2010), I also suspect there will be massive national Republican pressure on Schwarzenegger to take on Boxer. Next year, Republicans must defend 22 of the 34 Senate seats at stake — an impossibly large number of slots for even a healthy and popular party to protect, let alone one as demoralized and unpopular as the Republican Party right now.

As if having the most disliked president and vice president since modern polling began weren’t enough, these also are not exactly halcyon days for the Republican Senate minority. The FBI recently raided the home of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest-serving GOP senator; Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana admitted he had patronized a D.C. escort service when his phone number showed up in the madam’s logs; and, of course, there’s Larry Craig. Two veteran GOP senators, Wayne Allard from Colorado and John Warner from Virginia, have announced their retirements, opening up those normally red states for possible Democratic pick-ups (the other senators in both are now Democrats). And then there’s the matter of money: The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee last quarter outraised its GOP counterpart by an eye-popping 2-to-1.

All this means that Democrats almost surely will pick up more Senate seats in ’08 to bolster their current slim majority of 51-49. In fact, Republicans have to be concerned that the Democrats might reach a level where on certain issues, combined with just two or three cross-over Republicans, they could muster the 60 votes required to shut off filibusters.

And speaking of money, one of the reasons Republicans have lost the last seven U.S. Senate races in California is the huge cost of campaigning in the state — and the even more daunting level of resources necessary to successfully compete against an incumbent senator. Schwarzenegger, as he has repeatedly demonstrated with his unprecedented, non-stop money-grubbing and national fundraising base, could fairly easily amass the $20-30 million he would need to contest for the Boxer seat. What he didn’t raise he could make up for out of his own ample personal resources (Maria willing, of course).

I believe that making a competitive run at a California Senate seat — both of which have been considered private preserves by Democrats in California and nationally for the past 16 years — will prove too tempting under these circumstances for both Arnold and the national Republican apparatus. In addition, tying down the Democrats in California with a hugely expensive Senate fight could potentially reduce the amount of cash available to Democratic candidates in other tight Senate races around the country that year.

My bet (literally, since I have an outstanding $1,000 wager with a prominent GOP consultant) is the Terminator will not be politically terminated when he is termed out of the governorship in 2010. And I certainly hope Sen. Boxer is bulking up for the potential match of her political life.