Why Boxer Will Win

Lately, there has been much gleeful hand rubbing among national Republicans about the prospect of knocking off U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and retaking a Golden State Senate seat, both of which have been held by Democrats since 1992. My advice to Republicans? Rub your hands all you want, but hand out your money to GOP candidates in other states, because Boxer will win despite current polls showing a tight race.

Let me recount the reasons. There are historical forces, electoral precedents and political realities at work that will make it very difficult for Republican nominee Carly Fiorina to pull off what would be one of the biggest upsets of the 2010 cycle.

Start with the fact that Democrats have won the past seven — that’s right, seven — straight Senate races in California, beginning with the duel wins of Dianne Feinstein and Boxer in 1992’s “Year of the Woman.” All but Feinstein’s 1994 reelection (she ran for the last two years of Pete Wilson’s term in ’92) were won by significant margins. The last feckless GOP candidate against Boxer got only 37.8 percent of the vote in ’04, and she won her first reelection by more than 10 points in 1998. Feinstein’s hapless 2006 opponent finished with just 35.1 percent, and in 2000 she won by nearly 20 points.

In fact, the last successful GOP Senate candidate was Wilson, running for reelection in 1988 — also, ironically, the last time a GOP presidential candidate carried California. By my count, that was 22 years ago. Plainly said, California voters are woefully out of practice when it comes to voting for a Republican for U.S. Senate.

And although Republicans have won six of the past eight gubernatorial races in this supposedly solid-blue state, the last time California voters elected both a GOP governor and a GOP senator was 1982. If Meg Whitman were to win the governor’s race, that in and of itself would be an inverse factor that augurs against Fiorina’s also succeeding.

In the 1998 California governor’s race, Republican nominee and then-Attorney Gen. Dan Lungren made the typical arrogant candidate’s mistake: attempting to force the electorate to adjust to the candidate, rather than the candidate conforming to the electorate. He was unrepentantly anti-abortion even in cases of rape and incest, was an enthusiastic proponent of offshore drilling, opposed gun control in general and had taken money from the tobacco companies, then initially refused to sue them, as nearly every other state attorney general had done. We Democrats lovingly referred to these issues as the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” for Lungren.

All this in one of the most pro-choice states in America, with a woman’s right to choose specifically enumerated in our Constitution; in a state where blanket opposition to offshore drilling has been shared even by the last two Republican governors; in a state with the strictest gun control laws in the country, including the first assault-weapons ban in 1989 (signed, by the way, by a conservative Republican governor, George Deukmejian); and in a state with the first-in-the-nation indoor smoking ban — also signed by a Republican governor, Wilson — and the second-lowest smoking rate among the 50 states.

When asked by reporters how he was a good fit for California given his issue stands, Lungren would sneer his signature sneer, wag his finger knowingly and patronizingly, and reply, “Oh, you don’t understand, California voters are more conservative than they even know.” Well, turned out it was Lungren who didn’t understand, and he got creamed by 20 points, the biggest shellacking in an open California governor’s race since 1958.

Fiorina so far is doing her best possible Lungren impersonation. She has openly promised she would vote to repeal Roe v. Wade, opposes abortion even for rape and incest victims, brags about being an NRA member and supports the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to firearms to every American, is avid about offshore drilling and nuclear power (California, by the way, Carly, has a state law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown that bans new nuclear plants) and vehemently opposes the state’s landmark AB 32 to reduce greenhouse gases. She ought to be running in Utah or Oklahoma, not California.

The issue of abortion alone is sufficient to sink Fiorina. The last anti-abortion candidate to win a top-of-the-ticket statewide race in California was Gov. Deukmejian, running for reelection in 1986. Even the curmudgeonly conservative S.I. Hayakawa, who was the last elected GOP senator before Wilson took his seat in 1982, believed that abortion was a matter between a patient and her doctor.

The respected Field poll in July found that 71 percent of California voters either favor no changes to the state’s current liberal abortion laws or want to make abortions easier to obtain. The same 71 percent endorsed Roe v. Wade itself. Even among registered Republicans, only 40 percent want to make abortion harder to come by. Fully 75 percent of independents, of which Fiorina must win a majority to beat Boxer, favor making no changes to the law or allowing easier access to abortion.

And there sits Fiorina, an opponent of Roe v. Wade, endorsed by Sarah Palin and the National Right to Life Committee. (GOP gubernatorial nominee Whitman, like her opponent Brown, is pro-choice.) Why not run for office in Texas and oppose oil drilling?

Much also has been made of the Republicans putting up their first-ever female candidates for governor and Senate. But while Whitman’s gender may pick up some women voters who would like to see the first female governor of the biggest state, Fiorina’s gender is a wash in the Senate race because her opponent is a female, too. Plus, Californians are used to women serving the state in Washington — we had the first two female senators ever to serve concurrently from the same state, we are home to the first female speaker of the House, and 19 of the state’s 53-member congressional delegation are women.

The architecture of the ballot itself complicates Fiorina’s task. Unlike in some other states, U.S. Senate candidates in California are at the bottom, not the top, of the statewide ballot — trailing all seven partisan statewide constitutional offices and even the lowly Board of Equalization, the state’s tax board.

If the socially moderate Whitman wins the governor’s race at the top of the ticket, it will be because she entices at least 15-18 percent of Democrats to vote for her, as well a majority of the 20 percent of voters who are not aligned with any party. The notion that Democratic cross-overs and normally Democratic-leaning independents would vote in roughly the same proportions for a by-the-book right-winger like Fiorina eight positions down the ballot is hard to envision.

One other factor in Boxer’s favor: Control of the U.S. Senate is up for grabs in this election. Californians are relatively used to Republican governors; in the past 110 years, Democrats have held the governorship for only 25 of them, and there have been GOP governors for 23 of the past 28 years. But having one doesn’t change the balance of power nationally, and again, state voters haven’t elected a GOP senator since 1988.

President Obama is still a quite popular figure in California (56-38 job approval in the latest PPIC poll and 56-37 among independents), a state he carried in 2008 by 24 points, and has already made several trips here to raise big bucks for Boxer. With Obama and probably Bill Clinton laying out the stakes, and given their natural Democratic voting tendencies in federal races, California voters in the end will be very resistant to casting a vote that turns control of the Senate back to the likes of flat-earth troglodytes like Jim DeMint, Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn.

I don’t always agree with Boxer and have never played a role in any of her campaigns. But as a professional strategist, I am often in awe of the energy, discipline and cunning she brings to her races. Perhaps because of her diminutive size and the fact she operates in Feinstein’s larger-than-life shadow, she is perpetually underestimated as both a campaigner and a fundraiser.

She regularly visits all 58 counties in this vast state and can slash away at an opponent with the best of the male candidate machete wielders. Her classic comeback to Fiorina’s catty on-camera remark about her hair was: “I’ve decided that if everyone in California who’s had a bad hair day votes for me, we’ll win in a landslide. So I’m going for the bad hair vote!” Boxer has by far the best direct-mail fundraising operation of any California politician in history (a reported 60,000+ proven givers). I already have received more than 15 solicitations from her, almost all exquisitely timed to some current event in the news. This is one of the reasons she had an eye-popping 12-to-1 cash-on-hand lead over Fiorina as of June 30.

At the end of the day, Fiorina, like Lungren in ’98 and the last two sad-sack GOP Senate nominees in California, is a square peg trying to fit herself into a round hole. She may have a more chic do than Boxer, but my prediction is that she will have her better-coifed head handed to her by the junior senator from California in November.

Garry South is a longtime Democratic strategist who ran the successful Democratic gubernatorial campaigns of Gray Davis in 1998 and 2002.