For California Democrats, GOP upset in Massachusetts is a cause for worry

The impact of Tuesday’s Senate election in Massachusetts hit California within hours, as Republican office- seekers moved to grab opportunities and nervous Democrats scrambled to assess how vulnerable their party’s largest stronghold may have become.

Until recently, many Democratic strategists believed that incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer was a prohibitive favorite for reelection in November and that their party’s presumed candidate for governor, Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, would coast to victory. Now, confidence has faded on both.

Other statewide offices, including attorney general and insurance commissioner, seem very much up for grabs, Democratic strategists said.

Few analysts in either party expect the Democrats to lose control of the state Legislature, which last happened during the wave of voter discontent early in the Clinton administration, but Democrats concede that they are in danger of losing several seats. That would further complicate the already difficult task of finding the required two-thirds majority to pass a state budget.

Boxer sought to reassure supporters that she knew she had a battle ahead. “Every state is now in play, absolutely,” she told reporters in Washington. The lesson from Massachusetts, she said, is “never, ever, ever take an election for granted.”

Republicans were quick to try to convert sudden enthusiasm into cash, sending e-mail alerts to donors in which some compared themselves to Scott Brown, the GOP victor in Massachusetts.

“The headlines are being written: If a less-government-more-freedom Republican can win in Massachusetts, we can win anywhere . . . including California,” Tom Campbell, a contender for Boxer’s seat, wrote in an e-mail to supporters.

Steve Poizner, the state insurance commissioner and a GOP gubernatorial candidate, alerted his supporters that “the Democratic establishment is growing increasingly worried about this fall’s election.”

If anything, Poizner’s words were an understatement. “Everybody takes what is going on seriously,” said Democratic political strategist Jason Kinney. “There is a strong anti-incumbent movement afoot, and in some sense an anti-Democratic-establishment movement. I don’t care if you are running for U.S. Senate or city council. If you don’t spend your energy running as far from Washington as possible, you do so at your own peril.”

Democrats said they have been chastened and have renewed their promises to listen to voters. They were also quick to point out all the reasons why what happened in Massachusetts won’t necessarily be repeated in California.

Democratic Party Chairman John Burton said the party’s Senate candidate in Massachusetts, state Atty. Gen. Martha Coakley, was just a bad campaigner.

“Nobody in California that is running for office would take off for a weeklong vacation before the general election after a tough primary, and they probably would be standing out in front of Dodger Stadium or Candlestick Park shaking hands,” he said, alluding to one of Coakley’s widely cited gaffes involving the Boston Red Sox baseball team.

Also in Massachusetts, the majority of voters are registered independent. In California, independents make up only 20% of registered voters, and Democrats continue to have a significant plurality.

Burton was not the only political figure critical of Coakley’s campaign. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the nephew by marriage of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), said that voters in Massachusetts had a special affinity for Kennedy and that Coakley had been wrong to assume that voters would shift their allegiance to her.

“Anyone else that tries to use that name and to step in and says, ‘And I’m going to protect the Kennedy legacy’ -- that didn’t work,” Schwarzenegger said.

Some Democrats argue that the national tide of voter discontent could play into the hands of Brown, the only major Democrat in the governor’s race.

A career politician and former two-term governor, the unpredictable 71-year-old still fancies himself an outsider, and many voters see him as such.

Brown’s supporters have been debating whether his approach to the campaign is too detached -- he has yet to formally declare himself a candidate.

Others, including Darry Sragow, a Democratic political strategist, said Brown should stick with his plan. “He has all the reason in the world to just stick to his knitting,” Sragow said. “The more he looks like a candidate, the less he is serving his own cause.”

Many politicians don’t have that option, however. Democratic lawmakers in the few competitive seats in the state Legislature are particularly nervous.

Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), one of the few Democrats elected from Orange County, is among the GOP targets.

“It’s just a reminder that you always keep the will of the electorate in mind,” he said. “That is the big lesson, whether you’re in a safe Democratic seat or a safe Republican seat. . . . If you’re not listening to the voters, things can change very quickly.”

Times staff writers Seema Mehta in Los Angeles and Richard Simon and Michael Rothfeld in Washington contributed to this report.