U.S. Senate Race in the Final Leg: Boxer Ahead with No Clear Winner

The race for the U.S. Senate in California between incumbent Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer and Republican newcomer Carly Fiorina has been contentious more often than cordial, and, by most accounts, too close to call.

While Boxer has led the polls since early September, with few polls before then showing Fiorina ahead, Fiorina is showing only two to four percentage points behind Boxer on average, within the margin of error. University of Southern California’s September 27 poll showed Boxer ahead by 5, with 39% of the 1,000 likely voters sampled, but some 23% of those polled indicated they were undecided, making the fast-approaching November 2 election hard to predict. Other polling of likely voters shows similarly close margins between Boxer and Fiorina, as well as high percentages of undecided voters. With close margins, heated political rhetoric, a $20 billion budget shortfall, and an electorate that is in some part receptive to the idea of a political outsider, it is no surprise that many pundits have this race marked as a toss up.

California has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1988 when Senator Pete Wilson was elected for a second term, but he left the seat in 1992 when he was elected Governor. Boxer took the seat in ‘93, has served three terms, and has vowed to live up to her last name in her fight for a fourth.

Fiorina, a self-professed product of the American Dream, was the CEO of Hewlett Packard for six years until she was forced out in 2005. Fiorina has attempted to make it easy for voters to distinguish her from her opponent, framing Boxer as an ineffective career politician, a Washington relic, a taxer, a spender, and even an enemy of small business. Boxer has not shied away from the fight, making consistent strides to pigeonhole Fiorina as an outsourcer of 30,000 American jobs and a corporate, multi-yacht-owning elitist who is out of touch with California’s needs. Fiorina has the advantage of Boxer’s 28-year legislative record to criticize, but Fiorina’s six years as CEO of one of the world’s largest computer manufacturers, Hewlett Packard, has provided enough of a record for Boxer to attack. Boxer’s attack on Fiorina’s job termination and outsourcing record, including Fiorina’s 2004 comment that “no American job is a God-given right,” seems to be a point that resonates with Californians, some 2.2 million of whom are unemployed. Fiorina defends herself, saying outsourcing is sometimes the nature of the global business environment and that she was forced to cut jobs to save even more jobs. Boxer’s attack likely remains persuasive with the unemployed population as she points out that Fiorina showed no sacrifice, earning over $100 million during the period she cut jobs.

Fiorina has managed to connect with disaffected voters, fiscal conservatives, and Tea Partiers alike, but do not look for America’s newest political party to play a large role in the outcome of this election. While Tea Partiers are likely voters, only 41% of the electorate identifies in any way with the Tea Party, according to a September 24 Field Poll, and few of those voters are likely to be Democrats that have jumped ship.

California voters’ top issues for the 2010 election season are the economy, a 12% unemployment rate, and the state’s large budget shortfall—with education, health care, immigration, and taxes following close behind. The candidates scrapped over these and other issues in their televised debate, also reaching the issue of abortion. Fiorina defended her pro-life, anti-choice stance, telling the audience that her husband is the product of a choice not to abort even when the health of his mother’s pregnancy was in question. She further accused Boxer of using the topic as a wedge and a distraction from the true issues. It was surprising to hear a Republican candidate for political office accuse a Democrat of using the abortion issue as a distraction, as it is usually a base-rallying tool for Republican candidates.

However, the abortion issue is not at the forefront of California voters’ minds, and thus is not likely to be determinative for the undecided voters when ballots are punched. The candidates take traditional party stances on the issue of same-sex marriage, and although this election season is the first in nearly 20 years that does not have a same-sex marriage question on any state ballot, the candidates will likely gain some social-issue voters on each side. The political lines are clearly drawn and voters in this election can, for the most part, be expected to vote that line. It is job creation, economic stimulus, education, and health care that provide room for the candidates to gain votes, perhaps from the other side, but more likely from the large and elusive undecided block.

Both Boxer and Fiorina contend they have the answer to create jobs, help small businesses, and grow the economy. Boxer voted for the recently enacted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which the White House projects will create some 400,000 jobs in California and bring $85 billion for much needed infrastructure improvement, health care, education, and clean energy technology investment. Boxer, the first female chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has brought federal funding to the state for conservation initiatives and sponsored her own climate change legislation, although that legislation died quickly amidst strong GOP opposition.

Fiorina has no record as a legislator, but promises Californians that the way to grow the economy and create jobs is by promoting small businesses and cutting taxes. Boxer voted for the recently enacted health care legislation, dubbed ObamaCare, which Fiorina strongly opposes. Fiorina supports health care for all Americans, but by different means, offering heath care reforms that increase competition in the insurance market and crack down on frivolous lawsuits that raise costs for all. Both positions on the future of health care for the state and the nation are vulnerable to critique, but Boxer’s legislative record, whether exactly what voters want or not, may again be a slight advantage over Fiorina’s blanket statements on the issue.

According to third quarter fundraising reports, Boxer also edged Fiorina out in fundraising over the past months. Boxer brought in $6.2 million and has $6.5 million cash on hand. Fiorina rounded up $5.9 million, but also has significantly less cash on hand, just $1.8 million. Fiorina spent about $5.5 million from her own coffers for the primary election, but has since relied wholly on donations in addition to National GOP and U.S. Chamber of Commerce money. Both candidates have enough cash to fight hard for the remaining days of the race, and pundits expect this to be the case, with increased airtime for both candidates’ political ads.

Some see this election as a referendum on the incumbent Democrats, but it seems unlikely that Democrats and progressive-leaning undecided voters will opt for a political newcomer with no lawmaking experience to unseat Senator Boxer–making this election a choice, not a referendum.

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