Former President Bill Clinton and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will try to exert their influence on California’s political races this week, the latest in a long list of luminaries to lavish attention on the state as the Nov. 2 election nears.
The onslaught of top draws from both sides of the political aisle benefits both the candidates receiving the help and the celebrities offering it. The interest is prompted by several factors, chief among them the fact that the gubernatorial and Senate contests in blue-leaning California are so tight this close to election day.
“The stakes are even higher than normal,” said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and former national GOP official. “It’s an unusual amount of attention. These elections are more competitive than we’ve seen in a long time.”
Among Democrats, Clinton will head rallies for gubernatorial nominee Jerry Brown as well as candidates for lieutenant governor and the House of Representatives in Santa Ana and Los Angeles on Friday, and in San Jose on Sunday. President Obama will travel to Los Angeles on Oct. 22 to campaign for Brown and Sen. Barbara Boxer, and First Lady Michelle Obama will raise money for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Boxer and other Democrats in a three-day swing through California in late October. A Democratic source said former Vice President Al Gore also is likely to head to California in the coming weeks.
Among Republicans, Palin will appear in San Jose on Thursday and at a GOP “victory” rally in Anaheim on Saturday, the same day Sen. John McCain campaigns with GOP Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina in San Diego. Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman recently stumped with former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Former Vice President Dick Cheney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have also been seen in California in recent days.
Several of the GOP stumpers — Palin, Christie, Gingrich, Jindal, Giuliani, Romney — are rumored to be aspiring for White House runs in 2012 or beyond. For them, a visit to California serves a dual purpose — campaigning for fellow Republicans while surveying the landscape of a delegate-rich state and making connections with the political dignitaries who live here.
“If you ever want to run in the future, you want to know the donors, you want to know the local officials whose endorsements and connections are valuable,” said Bruce Cain, a political science professor at UC Berkeley. “These are important trips for them if they decide to do something in the future that is national.”
Or, as one GOP fundraiser said, citing a vintage line: “California is known as the ATM machine for both parties.”
Both the gubernatorial and Senate contests are competitive, but they are drawing major interest from outside of California for different reasons.
Republicans are especially energetic about the prospect of knocking out Boxer, a three-term senator who to them is the personification of a big-government liberal. Strategically, most paths for a GOP takeover of the Senate involve Boxer losing. Meanwhile, the candidate who wins the gubernatorial race could help shape redistricting of congressional seats, depending on the fate of two related measures on the November ballot.
The visiting political figures are trying to pump up their parties’ bases, which means something vastly different in 2010 than it did just two years ago. Democratic voters are now less motivated than their Republican counterparts, so party loyalists hope visits by Clinton and the Obamas, who are warmly regarded by the party rank-and-file, could push occasional voters to the polls.
Republicans are more energized, but Fiorina and Whitman need a strong turnout to offset the Democrats’ double-digit edge in voter registration. Conservative voters who are skeptical of some of the moderate stances taken by Whitman, such as on immigration and climate change, could be urged to the polls by Palin.
“At this point, this is not so much about raising money for candidates in California and it’s not about convincing independent voters. It’s more about enthusing the base,” said Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic strategist.
But concern about how such partisan visits will play among those independent voters is also evident.
Brown is campaigning with Clinton, which helps quash a Whitman ad that used Clinton’s words during a 1992 presidential primary debate to castigate Brown. The ad led to a dust-up earlier this year when it prompted Brown to lash out at Clinton as a liar and to joke about his dalliance with a White House intern; Brown apologized after his comments came to light and Clinton endorsed him soon after.
Neither Fiorina nor Whitman is appearing publicly with Palin, who is immensely popular with party loyalists but disliked by independents.
“It’s a trickier thing for the Republicans because they’re in the minority and they both want to rally the base but not alienate the middle,” Cain said. “So I suppose the compromise is [to] have Sarah Palin or others go to base areas and try to rally the troops and speak up for candidates and not have the candidates appear with her so there aren’t any visuals that might upset moderate Democrats or independents. They’re trying to have their cake and eat it too.”
All this has caused a level of excitement among political observers unseen since the 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis — a rollicking circus that featured scores of candidates, including the movie star and eventual winner Arnold Schwarzenegger, that drew an international audience. Recent contests in California — whether presidential, gubernatorial or for the Senate — have inspired more yawns than drama.
“You have to go back to the recall to see this much fun,” said Pitney. “Finally, California political junkies have a show to watch.”