After the most expensive primary campaign in history, Republican voters in California appear poised to choose two wealthy female former Silicon Valley executives, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, as their nominees for governor and U.S. senator.
Californians will also be voting on whether to alter the state's semi-closed primary system.
Proposition 14, the "good government" change that would replace the party primary system with one where the top two vote-getters regardless of political affiliation would get on the November ballot, is leading in the polls by nearly 2-1.
"The governor and senatorial races are fascinating," said Les Francis, a former California political operative who now lives in Washington, D.C. "But in the long term, the voters' decision on Prop 14 this Tuesday may be the most important result of the day."
The latest head-to-head polls in the GOP gubernatorial primary show Meg Whitman, a billionaire former chief executive officer of eBay, with a 2-1 lead over State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. The winner will face Democrat Jerry Brown, a former governor.
Meanwhile, former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina has opened up a lead over two opponents in the GOP primary for the right to face Sen. Barbara Boxer in November. Like Jerry Brown, Barbara Boxer has no major opposition in the Democratic primary.
Meg Whitman has been spending $500,000 a day for the past two months (nearly $80 million overall -- much of it her own money) in the effort to defeat Poizner, a multimillionaire who helped invent the Global Positioning System technology widely used in cell phones. A big spender by any standard except Whitman's, Poizner has spent $30 million, most of it on a television advertising campaign demonizing Whitman as a liberal who is soft on immigration. The latest Field Poll, an independent California survey, found Whitman leading Poizner by 51 percent to 25 percent, with the balance undecided or going to minor candidates.
The same poll had Fiorina leading the GOP senatorial primary with 37 percent. Moderate Tom Campbell, an economist and former House member who lost twice before as a Senate candidate, had 22 percent, with conservative Chuck DeVore, a state assemblyman, getting 19 percent -- and the rest undecided.
Money is talking in the Senate race, too, although the numbers are lower than in the gubernatorial competition. Campaign finance records show that from Jan. 1 through May 19, Fiorina spent $6.7 million to $2 million for DeVore and $1.6 million for Tom Campbell, who once led in the polls.
As in the past, however, the knowledgeable and likeable Campbell has proved a bust as a fundraiser. In a state where television advertising is critical in political campaigns, Campbell's TV commercials have been few and far between -- and bland besides. Fiorina has been the only one of the three candidates with sufficient money to advertise with any regularity on television. And Fiorina's spots, some of them made solely for the Internet, have been pointed and effective.
Still, the Senate race many not be quite a slam-dunk for Fiorina. DeVore, a Tea Party favorite and the choice of the Senate Conservatives Fund, has been gaining in every poll and points out that low turnout traditionally favors the most conservative candidate in a Republican primary. What the turnout will actually be is anyone's guess. Negative campaigning, while often effective, can depress turnout and the Whitman-Poizner race has been marked by relentless commercials on both sides attacking the other's record.
The negative campaigning may have damaged Republican chances in the fall. Whitman, who started out as a moderate, moved to the right, especially on immigration, to counteract Poizner. Fiorina moved even further right -- on issues ranging from abortion and gun control to offshore oil drilling -- in her seemingly successful attempt to catch Campbell, who favors abortion rights and also expressed a view, heretical here and elsewhere, that tax increases may be necessary in some circumstances.
Fiorina's repositioning on the issues has helped her in the GOP primary but may have hurt her chances against Boxer. A Los Angeles Times poll found Boxer trailing Campbell in a trial heat, but leading both Fiorina and DeVore. Pro-life candidates have not won a major statewide office in California for two decades.
The dynamic in the 2010 GOP primary is a familiar one here. Republicans, perhaps spoiled by the unrivaled success of Ronald Reagan, have compromised their chances many times before by nominating an unelected movement conservative instead of a more centrist candidate with crossover appeal. Barbara Boxer might still be representing San Francisco in the House of Representatives instead of serving as one of two California woman Democrats in the Senate, if the state's Republican voters had been savvy enough to nominate Tom Campbell in 1992. Instead, the GOP standard-bearer was conservative political commentator Bruce Herschensohn, who narrowly bested Campbell in a three man-race (Sonny Bono was the spoiler). Herschensohn lost to Boxer by five points in the 1992 general election.
It won't come in time to help Campbell -- not in 2010, anyway -- but this is precisely the kind of scenario Proposition 14 is intended to forestall. Primaries in California can best be described as semi-closed. Voters who are independents -- called "decline to state" in California" -- can ask for the ballot of either party. The primary system would be changed, however, if Proposition 14 passes. Supporters say that the shift to an open primary where the two top candidates regardless of affiliation get on the November ballot would give centrists more of a chance, particularly in the Republican Party. Presently, self-proclaimed moderates are at such a disadvantage in the GOP primaries that examples such as Tom Campbell are increasingly rare: Most moderates don't bother to run at all.
Proposition 14 is supported by an array of reform groups but strongly opposed by both political parties. A May poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed the measure with 60 percent support, but polls are often an unreliable guide when it gives to ballot measures. The measure would apply to most state and federal offices but not to presidential primaries, which are closed.
Perhaps in time, Proposition 14 might help California become more governable. In the short term, however, both Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown maintain that they can accomplish that goal. Which one of them will be favored after Tuesday is an open question.
A Los Angeles Times poll also showed Whitman trailing Brown by six percentage points in a trial heat. She had led Brown before the negative commercial barrage began between her and Brown. But Whitman never went as far right as Fiorina and should find it easier to regain the middle ground. And though Whitman favors public financing of abortions, she is favored by 2-1 in the primary by voters who describe themselves as "born again Christian," according to the Field Poll. Perhaps these anomalous results show that California Republicans are willing to put aside purity tests and choose a governor who is more a manager than an ideologue. Of course, that was Schwarzenegger's appeal as well, but in Sacramento these days, making government work is easier said than done.
"Sadly, no matter who emerges from the respective gubernatorial primaries," Les Francis said, "no one seems up to the tremendous challenges the state faces."
Editor's note: An editing error in an earlier version of this story suggested that California voters will be deciding Tuesday on a proposed referendum to legalize marijuana. That measure is slated for a vote on Nov. 2, and is not on the June 8 ballot.
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