If ever there was an election in which Sen. Barbara Boxer's foes appeared to have their chance to defeat her, it was this one.
Voters showed an inclination toward sweeping out longtime incumbents, and Boxer's resume included 28 years in Washington. Voters were skeptical about the effectiveness of the Obama administration's programs to recharge the economy, and she was one of the fiercest defenders of the federal stimulus bill and the new healthcare law. Californians said they were looking for leaders with economic expertise and an ability to create jobs, and she was a senator best known for ideological crusades on social issues, running against an opponent who was the first woman to run a Fortune 20 company.
Yet in spite of her perennially weak approval ratings, a political climate that favored Republicans and what she called the "toughest and roughest campaign" of her lifetime, Boxer pulled out yet another victory, trouncing former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina 52% to 42.6%, with some ballots still to be counted.
Speaking to reporters after collapsing into a chair at her victory party early Wednesday, Boxer said she had ultimately convinced voters that she was the candidate most focused on fighting for their jobs, in no small measure through a $15-million ad campaign that portrayed Fiorina as a heartless corporate titan who had laid off workers and shipped jobs abroad.
Although Boxer insisted that Californians initially were open to candidates with corporate experience like Fiorina and former EBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman, she said her campaign struck a nerve with voters anxious about their jobs by telling the story of Fiorina's record, including a closing ad that featured testimonials from workers fired under her tenure.
Ultimately, Boxer said, "I think as [voters] looked at Jerry [Brown] and they looked at me, they said, you know these are two imperfect people — we know that, they've been around a while — but we trust them."
Fiorina had also embraced a risky strategy in California by running as a strong conservative — never moving toward the middle on thorny issues like abortion, the state's global warming law or offshore oil drilling even though her views put her at odds with the majority of Californians. Her path to victory rested on the premise that frustration with the Obama administration's economic policies would trump those differences, turning out Republicans and independents in force on her behalf. But exit polls suggest that did not happen.
Among California voters casting a ballot in the Senate race, exit polls found that only 24% described themselves as angry about the way the federal government is working. Another 22% said they were "satisfied" and 47% said they were "dissatisfied but not angry" — with the last of those voters favoring Boxer over Fiorina by a 9-point margin.
In a brief concession speech Wednesday at her campaign office in Irvine, Fiorina expressed no regrets about her strategy or Boxer's portrayals of her corporate record. Calling the campaign "a great adventure," she chalked up her loss to Democrats' dominance in California, and she took no questions.
"We won with independents," Fiorina said, referring to the exit polls that showed self-identified independents breaking her way 47% to 42%, "but in the end we could not overcome the registration advantage that Democrats have, in particular in L.A. County."
Beyond that, she said, "I'm not going to engage in a game of could have, would have, should have. I'm proud of every moment of this campaign."
Before heading home — without a word about her future plans or whether she would return to politics —she reiterated the core message of her campaign: that the government was making it too difficult for Californians to live the American dream.
"We cannot have a government that continues to spend out of control money that is not its own, but is the taxpayers' money," she said.
But that argument also did not appear to be as compelling in California as in other parts of the country. Exit polling showed that when voters were asked what the highest priority should be for the next Congress, "spending to create jobs" ranked at the top.
Both sides said that in the end, Boxer also got a significant boost from President Obama, who came out to campaign for her and was featured in television and radio ads in the closing weeks of the campaign.
While Obama's approval ratings have dipped well below 50% in other parts of the country, 54% of voters in California approved of how the president is doing his job.
"In the rest of the country it was 1994 all over again, in California it was 2008 all over again," said UC San Diego political science professor Thad Kousser. "This is a state where the president still has some support, where it seems like the Democrats turned out in large numbers, and it wasn't quite the same threatening electoral conditions that we've seen elsewhere."
But all those factors aside, Boxer's aides believe that they were able to define Fiorina through their ad campaign in a way that made it difficult for her to recover.
They had roared into the fall campaign with a significant financial advantage — allowing them to air television ads for more than a week unchallenged by Fiorina. In mid-September, they launched the first of a series of scorching ads detailing the layoffs and outsourcing during her tenure at HP, as well as the millions of dollars in compensation she received.
Boxer's campaign manager, Rose Kapolczynski, said at that juncture, many voters still did not know much about Fiorina: "That was an opportunity to define her," she said.
Within a few weeks, polling showed that Fiorina had slumped by eight points.
Boxer's pollster Mark Mellman said Fiorina's business experience initially impressed voters but "when people understood what she really did at HP, it was devastating to her."
"If there is a mortal sin in this economy, it is exporting jobs," he said.
Boxer's team also believed that they benefited from the fact that Fiorina never offered what they deemed to be an effective defense of her record. But Fiorina campaign manager Marty Wilson said the campaign decided early on to focus on defining Boxer as an ineffective and partisan incumbent who had been in office too long, to the detriment of Californians. Fiorina's ads glossed over her corporate record to focus on her pledge to find common ground in Washington.
"We could not win the election if we played on Barbara Boxer's turf, which would have been to get into a big, long, lengthy discussion about why corporate CEOs have to make the decisions that they make. It was not a winning argument for us," Wilson said. Neither, however, was the strategy they pursued.
"At the end of the day, the simple answer is we didn't get enough votes," Wilson said.