The major Republican candidates hoping to unseat U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer just don’t seem to be getting out much.
There are no television ads to view, though one candidate began airing a radio pitch this week. None of the candidates has mailed messages to voters; their public schedules show a stray luncheon or dinner. The only joint appearance of the major candidates took place more than a week ago and won’t be followed by another for two weeks.
More Republicans may know who’s up for an Oscar in February than who’s running for California’s highest federal office.
There are several reasons the race for U.S. Senate has been waged practically sub rosa. It has been eclipsed by a more pressing state budget crisis, a spate of high-profile criminal trials and the potentially relevant Democratic presidential primary.
None of the Republican candidates running against the two-term Boxer is particularly well-known statewide, and several started campaigning late, meaning they’re still scrambling to line up supporters and donors.
“We’re too busy dialing for dollars,” explained Sacramento-based consultant Sal Russo, campaign manager for former Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian of Carlsbad, as to why the candidates’ next joint public event isn’t until Feb. 16.
The four major GOP hopefuls on the March primary ballot -- Kaloogian, former Secretary of State Bill Jones, former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin and former Los Altos Hills Mayor Toni Casey -- must file by today reports of the contributions they received through the end of 2003.
Casey, who began raising money last year, said she had raised about $830,000 by the end of the year in donations, which are limited to $2,000 per person for the primary and an additional $2,000 for the general election. Marin’s campaign said Friday that she will report contributions of almost $783,000, raised over a shorter period of time. Jones said that he had collected $166,200, and had loaned his campaign $350,000.
Boxer, meanwhile, raised nearly $9 million for her campaign through December and has $5 million in cash on hand. Her fundraising prowess and incumbency dissuaded half a dozen Republicans with better name recognition from taking her on.
The campaign’s late start has also collided with another political reality: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is tapping the state’s Republican donors to promote two initiatives on the March ballot. Proposition 57 would authorize a $15-billion bond measure to pay off state budget debt. A companion measure, Proposition 58, would bar the state from future deficit borrowing, require a balanced budget and create an emergency reserve.
“Talk about flying into the wind,” said veteran Republican strategist Ken Khachigian, an advisor to Marin. “This is the toughest primary environment I’ve seen.”
In Orange County, to which Republicans naturally gravitate for money, donors haven’t coalesced behind one candidate, said Chris St. Hilaire, a statewide political consultant based in Costa Mesa.
“There’s a general consensus in the donor community that Jones is going to win the primary, and the primary focus is the governor’s economic recovery package,” he said. “It’ll be difficult for any Republican to succeed if the state goes bankrupt.”
The Jones campaign has been mum on its fundraising, which got off to a slow start in December but picked up with Schwarzenegger’s endorsement this month. The campaign announced Thursday that Schwarzenegger will be the host for a Feb. 19 event for Jones in Los Angeles, the day before the state Republican convention.
Casey, Marin and Kaloogian haven’t edged above single-digit support in voter surveys, with the better-known Jones the front-runner. Many Republican activists remain interested in Marin, however. She is a moderate Latina who supports abortion rights and thus could be more electable in the fall against Boxer.
Marin this week became the first Senate candidate to launch a paid media campaign. The 60-second introductory radio ad compares her to Schwarzenegger as an immigrant success story and calls her “Barbara Boxer’s worst nightmare” -- a label also used by Casey and Kaloogian.
“We need [Republicans] to understand that this is a viable campaign with a good message,” said Khachigian, the advisor to Marin. “If it’s Rosario and Boxer in November, you’ll see national interest in the race.”
Kaloogian, with less money and significantly lower visibility, has tried virtual campaigning to get out his message. His recent speech at a Starbucks in Sacramento was streamed through the Internet to viewers, but there’s no way of knowing who watched it.
Kaloogian strategist Russo said he’s not worried by a lack of public focus on the race. The primary will be decided, he said, by older, more conservative voters who respond to appeals by sources they trust.
Joe Murphy, a retired international trade attorney in Costa Mesa, said he tried to put together an Orange County forum to drum up interest in the race by those same voters. But he couldn’t get the major candidates together in the same room on the same night.
He’s since deferred to the Feb. 16 candidate forum sponsored by the Orange County Republican Party, which Marin, Casey and Kaloogian plan to attend.
“They really haven’t been able to get out to reach people the way they should,” Murphy said of the candidates.
“People want to see them face to face and ask questions in person. You can’t do it any other way.”