In 1992, California voters broke new ground by sending two women -- Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats -- to the U.S. Senate. The media dubbed them "Thelma and Louise" and they have proven as enduring as the 1991 Ridley Scott hit movie. Eighteen years later both senators are going strong, and the diminutive and feisty Boxer is seeking a fourth term.
Until Tuesday, Republican voters had never before in California nominated a woman for high office. Now, they've picked two, producing the GOP's version of Thelma and Louise. Carly Fiorina, the combative former chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard, won a three-way race to become her party's senatorial nominee while former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman decisively won the GOP nomination for governor. Whitman will face Democrat Jerry Brown, the state attorney general and a former two-term governor, in the November election.
Both Whitman and Fiorina
started in the center of the political spectrum and moved right in the primaries as a way of warding off opponents. Now they are expected to try and regain the middle ground, which is a necessary ingredient for political success in California these days. Democrats have a huge edge in registration, and President Obama has had a consistently higher approval rating in California than nationally. The president has made two appearances for Barbara Boxer with several more expected.
Despite the Democratic advantages in party identification, both races, especially the one for governor, appear competitive. Whitman, a personable billionaire, spent a record $81 million to win the primary and has pledged to spend "whatever it takes" to be elected governor. She should find it easier than Fiorina to move to the middle, where most California elections are decided.
"Whitman only muddied the waters in her positions on abortion and immigration," observes Bill Carrick, a well-known Democratic political consultant who is not involved in the Brown or Boxer campaigns. "Carly went hard-right and will find it harder to get back to acceptable positions." As an example, Whitman favors public funding of abortions, which Fiorina opposes. No pro-life candidate has won a statewide race here in two decades.
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But Carrick believes that economic issues rather than social ones are likely to determine the election outcome. California's jobless rate is 12.6 percent, significantly higher than the national average, and its dysfunctional state government is plagued by recurrent budget crises. Since the state is likely to be without a budget at least through the summer, budget woes loom as a major issue in the gubernatorial campaign.
With both government and Wall Street out of favor, neither candidate for governor has an ideal résumé. "Voters are not going to like their choices," predicts William Hauck, president of the California Business Roundtable and an adviser to former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.
Meg Whitman's business background has pluses and minuses. Her former firm eBay is popular, but Whitman has been accused of using her position as head of the company to enrich herself at the expense of shareholders. In 2002 congressional investigators alleged that she gave a sweetheart deal to Goldman Sachs, which Whitman hired to handle eBay's banking business. Goldman Sachs in return gave her a head start on initial public offerings of stock for her personal portfolio, on which she made a profit of $1.78 million.
This issue was raised in the GOP primary by Whitman's opponent, Steve Poizner. It appeared to have little impact, perhaps because it was secondary to Poizner, who focused his campaign on illegal immigration. Jerry Brown can be expected to do more with the Goldman Sachs issue. Poizner also tried to depict Whitman as a clone of the present unpopular governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. This theme, too, is likely to be exploited by Brown.
But Brown, the state's governor from 1975-1983, has blemishes as well. Whitman is already hammering at his conflicted fiscal record. Brown was a fierce opponent of Proposition 13, the 1978 tax-limiting initiative that critics say has put California in a permanent fiscal straitjacket. After nearly two-thirds of voters approved the measure, Brown abruptly became its most ardent defender. Whitman is already hammering away at what she calls Brown's "flip-flops" on Proposition 13 and other issues.
has largely overcome a reputation as "Governor Moonbeam," a label given him by the late Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko. It was based on Brown's quirky advocacies, including a proposal that California develop its own space satellite. Other of his policies seem prescient, notably his early advocacy of alternative energy sources. But Brown was not well regarded by a legislature that was controlled by his party; he will need to demonstrate in the campaign that he can exercise effective leadership.
At 72, Brown would be the oldest governor in California's history. (Whitman will be 54 in August.) He disappeared from public life for decades before re-emerging as the state's Democratic Party chairman and later mayor of the crime-ridden city of Oakland, where he pioneered the creation of charter schools and attracting business development. Although Brown was delighted that he attracted only token opposition in the Democratic primary, Carrick does not think this did him any favors, for Brown has yet to come up with a message for November -- or a first-rate campaign team. "A primary contest would have forced him to gear up," Carrick said.
In the Senate race, both candidates also have liabilities. Boxer is widely believed, by the public and insiders alike, to be a less effective senator than Feinstein. She suffers from the burden of incumbency and a belief among independents as well as Republicans that she is to the left of the Democratic mainstream. In three previous elections Boxer defeated weak and under-funded Republican candidates. Fiorina has plenty of money to stay in the game.
But Boxer is also an able politician who won her original nomination in 1992 against favored male candidates. She is unlikely to be outworked by anyone. Hauck says that Boxer is facing a top-tier candidate for the first time but he also notes that Fiorina is on her first political race of any kind. In California, the experience of running statewide is difficult -- although not impossible -- for a candidate who has not done it before. Fiorina will also be called to answer questions about her business performance at Hewlett-Packard, which fired her. Like Boxer, she is a fierce competitor who can handle herself in any debate.
With five months to go before the general election, both of these campaigns can be expected to be expensive and nasty. Charlie Cook, the venerable political analyst, gives Boxer the edge in the Senate race but does not regard it as a sure thing. He rates the governor's race a toss-up. It will be a costly contest for sure.