Whitman, Fiorina victories draw comparisons to Feinstein, Boxer wins in 1992

In the midst of great economic discontent, California voters turned to two women to solve their problems. In the euphoria of victory, one shouted out to her supporters: “I am here to tell you that the American people have taken back the country.”

It was not Meg Whitman, as she captured the Republican nomination for governor Tuesday night. It was not Carly Fiorina as she won the GOP Senate nod (although she did promise that Republicans would “take our government back” come November.)

The speaker was Barbara Boxer, talking to a crowd 18 years ago on the night that California elected two women, Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, to the U.S. Senate, a historic first.

On Tuesday it was Republicans who made history, nominating women for the first time as their candidates for governor and U.S. senator. And Wednesday, their hope was to follow Boxer and Feinstein’s script to the end, right down to winning in the general election — Whitman over Democrat Jerry Brown, and Fiorina over Boxer herself.

The historic firsts were similar. But the parallels may end there.

Dramatic differences exist between the elections themselves, the makeup of California’s voter population and the issues that drove people to the polls. Female Republican nominees remain rare enough at this level that no one is quite sure the extent of their appeal, leaving unanswerable several key questions:

Will the gender and generational verve that propelled Boxer and Feinstein fuel Fiorina and Whitman? Will the Republicans be seen as fresh faces to an electorate yearning for some — as the Democrats were in 1992 — or will their hard-edged business backgrounds negate the human touch that often has aided female candidates?

Already, Democrats Brown and Boxer are working to dismiss the two Republicans as “heartless” corporate chieftains used to laying off workers rather than protecting the little guy. The Republicans counter that it is they who can create jobs because of their familiarity with what Whitman on Tuesday night called “the real world.”

As always in California elections these days, the winners will be the candidates who are able to do what Boxer and Feinstein did 18 years ago — rally their party, attract crossover votes, appeal to women and independent voters.

The Democratic candidates are clearly vulnerable. At the same time, Boxer and Feinstein in 1992 had significant advantages not shared by their Republican sisters this year:

Their breakthrough campaign was in a presidential year, which revs up voter interest. Tuesday’s election, by way of contrast, drew only a quarter of registered voters, a dramatic drop from past elections. And many women in 1992 had been politically engaged by the wrenching hearings over the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas — and the pitched battle over his critic, Anita Hill — and court decisions threatening abortion rights.

This year, “the context is a little bit different,” said Bill Carrick, a key advisor to Feinstein in 1992 and her other campaigns. “You don’t have the energy you get from the top of the ticket.”

Whereas California voters then were deserting an unpopular Republican president, George H.W. Bush, now " President Obama remains substantially more popular in California than in the rest of the country,” Carrick added.

If Obama’s popularity here persists into the fall, it would deny the Republican candidates the momentum Boxer and Feinstein received from the concurrent campaign of Bill Clinton, who was en route to becoming the first Democrat to win California in 28 years.

Democrats also hold an advantage demographically: There are roughly 1 million more Democrats in California today than there were 18 years ago, yet about the same number of Republicans. There are millions more nonpartisan voters, but they have sided with Democrats in almost all recent elections. Pre-primary polls so far have shown both Republicans losing to their Democratic opponents among nonpartisan voters and other key groups.

A Republican who wins in California must pull in a substantial proportion of Latino voters, a prospect made more difficult by the focus in the primary race on illegal immigration.

Feinstein and Boxer also attracted significant crossover votes in 1992, with Feinstein winning a quarter of Republicans over her opponent John Seymour. Whitman and Fiorina have yet to demonstrate that they can persuade Democrats to break with their party.

Indeed, Boxer already has made a pitch for the moderate Republican voters who backed the second-place GOP finisher, Tom Campbell, whose positions on many social issues are nearer Boxer’s than Fiorina’s.

“Campbell voters, come home to me,” she said Wednesday. “A lot of those voters, I hope will come home to me — the moderate Republicans.”

The top issues in 1992 also dramatically benefited the Democratic women. A Times exit poll taken in November found that one of the most pressing issues on voters’ minds was “the need for more women in the Senate.” Feinstein campaigned on a slogan that “2% may be OK for milk, but it isn’t for the U.S. Senate,” referring to the fact that only two of 100 senators were women.

Now, 17 senators are women, and far more governors and legislators, so some of the urgency that drove the 1992 women has been lost.

So far this year, Whitman and Fiorina have presented images that are more conservative than Californians as a whole, although they are expected to spend tens of millions of dollars convincing voters that their opponents are a worse option.

Whitman and Fiorina were trying hard to ride the winds of history Wednesday. After ignoring the historical possibility during the primary campaign, they were reveling in it as they appeared together at a party unity breakfast in Anaheim. The history-breaking aspect of their victories may represent their strongest suit for November, political analysts suggested, if it causes Californians to take another look at a party that they had largely spurned.

“The problem with Republicans is that they are still perceived as a white man’s party,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP strategist who publishes a nonpartisan election guide. “Now come two women who are contrary to the stereotype that they are used to seeing in this state.”

The two have a chance, he said, of turning the election away from a contest on issue positions — which they would potentially lose — and into a “personality contest” in which they make a successful case that they are better suited to the challenges at hand, particularly fiscal ones.

“If they can’t do that,” he said, “they can’t win.”