FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, APRIL 20, 2010, OR THEREAFTER
BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“JUST HOW VULNERABLE IS BARBARA BOXER?”
All three Republicans now vying to challenge Barbara Boxer this fall call her “vulnerable” – and much worse – at least three or four times daily. So have three major polls, all of which found the three-term Democratic senator running about even with each of her possible opponents.
And yet… while 41 percent of Californians said in one survey last summer that they’d prefer to see Boxer unseated this fall, her approval rating in the Rasmussen poll (which often gives Republicans slightly higher percentages than they actually reap) and others remains at about 49 percent.
That’s right about where it usually is, and only slightly lower than ratings for California’s other Democratic senator, Dianne Feinstein. Oddly enough, almost no one calls Feinstein vulnerable as she looks to a likely 2012 reelection campaign.
What’s going on here? Just the usual, says Boxer.
"It’s tough for me every six years,” she said in an interview, noting that she’s riding a winning streak of 10 straight elections, dating from the 1970s when she first ran for supervisor in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. “A lot of people move in and out of California all the time, so you’re always dealing with a lot of voters who don’t know you. I have to reintroduce myself to the public every six years.”
Each time, her opponents – like current Republican leaders Tom Campbell and Carly Fiorina – have been touted as strong candidates, but lost. When she ran against former state Treasurer Matt Fong, Boxer recalled, “People said it was curtains for me. He was an Asian-American man, a moderate Republican with a mother (longtime former California Secretary of State March Fong Eu) who was a Democratic icon.”
In 2004, against another former Secretary of State, Bill Jones, who had long been the only Republican in statewide office, Boxer was again the early underdog. But she won by a 58-38 margin, topping the 54 percent drawn by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry that year in California and pulling 6,955,728 votes, still the most ever cast for any Senate candidate. Since then, Jones – a longtime state senator who won two statewide elections before losing to Boxer – has frequently been labeled “incompetent.” No one ever called him that before he lost.
Maybe Fong wasn’t weak and Jones was competent. Maybe Boxer knows something many analysts don’t. For sure, she knows her position is tenuous every time she enters an election season.
“All my races are hard, and this one will be, too,” she said. “It’s California, and despite a lot of people saying it’s a Democratic state, I know it’s very independent. It’s a huge state, so I need a campaign to tell people where I stand and what I’ve done for them.”
One reason her would-be opponents may have closed the early 10-point or larger gap she had over all of them: They’ve been campaigning actively, beating the bushes for votes almost every day, appearing in local newspapers and on local television, while Boxer has been active here only on weekends when she can fly out from Washington, D.C.
That’s a problem for every senator whose state is distant from the capital. Boxer has already raised more than $12 million to counter this factor with an ad campaign that likely won’t open until well after the June primary. Most likely, she’ll raise a total of $30 million, with another $10 million or so in independent expenditure ads on her behalf if labor unions or the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee believe she remains vulnerable as the November vote nears.
One thing she’ll surely hear plenty about this year that she hasn’t in past campaigns: The “call me Senator” encounter she had with a brigadier general during a committee hearing last year. That’s been a common You Tube video for months and will surely show up in Republican campaign ads.
In the exchange, she told Gen. Michael Walsh, testifying about federal aid in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, “Could you say ‘Senator’ instead of ‘ma’am?...It’s just a thing, I worked so hard to get that title, so I’d appreciate it, yes, thank you.”
Republicans leaped on that as a sign of senatorial arrogance. Boxer’s explanation: “The general had no problem with that. I just thought I should call him General and he should call me Senator since those are our titles and it was an official hearing. So, once in 18 years I did ask to be called by my official title. I think it’s so much less important than things like the jobs bills I’ve worked for and passed and many other things.”
Her longtime campaign manager, Rose Kapolczynski, says the continuing play that incident gets is “a sign we’re in a toxic political climate. People are angry. We also know that in off-year elections, the party in power always loses seats.”
But Kapolczynski insists Boxer will beat whatever Republicans runs against her. And if she does, that Republican will likely be called “weak” or “incompetent” for a long time to come.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit www.californiafocus.net