Fiorina would ordinarily be a long shot in California

Share via
Capitol Journal

From Sacramento

Californians normally wouldn’t elect a Carly Fiorina to the U.S. Senate or any high office.

The conservative Republican, most specifically, opposes abortion rights. “I’m a proud pro-life conservative,” she says.

But that’s an alien position to most California voters and the opposite of her liberal Democratic opponent, Sen. Barbara Boxer. “Pro-life” has been red meat for Boxer for decades.

The nonpartisan Field Poll on Wednesday confirmed this state’s unwavering support for women’s choice on abortion. An overwhelming majority of voters who were interviewed, 71%, said they favored either keeping the current law as is or making abortions easier to obtain.

Fiorina would ban abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when pregnancy endangered a woman’s life — a stance that pits her against even the majority of Republican voters, according to the Field Poll.

The last “pro-life” candidate to win a top-of-the-ticket race in California was the first George Bush in 1988. And that’s only because he had been local hero Ronald Reagan’s vice president.

But this, of course, is not a normal election year. Voters either are struggling financially or are worried they soon could be. California unemployment is hanging above 12%.

It’s possible that stands on so-called social issues, even abortion, will not provide the litmus tests for voters that they did in Boxer’s past reelection snoozers.

The three-term incumbent faces her toughest fight since she first was elected to the Senate from the House of Representatives in 1992 over conservative commentator Bruce Herschensohn. That was “the year of the woman.” This is the year of the grump.

The latest Field Poll shows Boxer with a narrow lead, 47% to 44%, a tiny gain since March.

But the key for poll director Mark DiCamillo is Boxer’s rising negative image.

Throughout her career, the Democrat’s image has been fairly positive, the pollster notes. But earlier this year it began to turn negative. And among likely voters, opinions of her currently are 41% favorable and 52% unfavorable — troubling numbers for an incumbent.

Far fewer voters know enough about political newcomer Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief, to offer an opinion. But among those who do, her image is positive — 34% favorable, 29% unfavorable.

Boxer’s job performance rating also is negative: 42% approval, 48% disapproval. In January, it was positive.

“Barbara Boxer hasn’t changed her stripes,” DiCamillo says. “What is it this year that has affected her job ratings so heavily?”

The veteran pollster answers his own question:

“ Republicans were taking shots at her in the [GOP] primary. But I also think there has been a change in the political backdrop in which voters are appraising Boxer. Part of it has to do with policy coming out of Washington.”

Yes, Californians support President Obama’s healthcare plan, DiCamillo says, but “generally there’s a mind-set that the deficit is becoming a bigger problem and the stimulus bill contributed to larger debt.

“There’s a sense by voters that government has overreached and is trying to do too much, that government shouldn’t be in this expansive mood anymore. There’s a greater sentiment for retrenching.

“And that cuts against Barbara Boxer. She’s someone who has always promoted expansion of government services. It’s the political headwind she faces.”

The pollster adds that Boxer “is much more vulnerable this year because her numbers are negative, and voters are much more in the mood for reining in government than they ever have been in the past.

“To me, the most important thing to remember in the race is that Fiorina is not that well known. And yet, she’s close to Boxer. And I find that really eye-opening. What it comes down to is a yes-or-no vote on Boxer. And voters are divided.”

The job of Boxer’s strategists, of course, is to make sure that the election does not become a referendum on the incumbent, the economy or even the president, although Obama remains popular in California.

The Field Poll found that 54% of voters approve of Obama’s job performance; 39% disapprove. That’s despite the finding that 53% believe the country is “seriously off on the wrong track.” Only 33% think it’s “going in the right direction.”

“This is going to be a choice between two people”— Boxer and Fiorina — says the Democrat’s campaign manager, Rose Kapolczynski. “The overwhelming issue is jobs and the economy. But voters also want to know that they’re electing someone to a six-year term who is in touch with their views on the issues.”

If voters look beneath the superficial slogans and sound bites, they will see that the two candidates do hold sharply contrasting views.

Fiorina supports more offshore oil drilling, the Iraq war, the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and Arizona’s new law targeting illegal immigrants. Boxer opposes all.

Boxer favors a national ban on assault weapons, the president’s timetable for troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, the federal stimulus package and California’s anti-global-warming program to curb greenhouse gases. Fiorina opposes all.

Curiously, Fiorina campaigned on the far right in the primary and really didn’t need to. She wound up winning easily. Since then, she hasn’t put much effort into veering back toward the center, except for flip-flopping Tuesday in favor of extending jobless benefits to the long-term unemployed.

“She’s personally pretty conservative,” says her deputy campaign manager, Julie Soderlund. “People find that refreshing. She’s not going to try to be something she’s not.”

But is she electable in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 45% to 31% and another 20% are left-leaning independents? Not normally. But conceivably this year.