Today, the “Golden State” is anything but golden. Wracked by severe budgetary crises and an untenable political system, California, once the paragon of the American Dream, teeters on the precipice of disaster. Diverse perspectives assign the blame: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state constitution, political parties or the “culture of Sacramento.”
From this chaos comes a single conclusion: This November, Californians are certain to vigorously manifest their frustration at the ballot box. The state will feature two of the most hotly contested races in the country, for governor and a Senate seat. Despite giving President Obama a robust 25 percent margin of victory in 2008, California in 2010 is a political jump ball.
Judging by the size of its population, California’s governorship is perhaps the most prestigious and powerful subnational elected office in the country. Chomping at the bit to reclaim the Governor’s Mansion from Republican Schwarzenegger, California Democrats did what they know best: looked to the establishment. And no Californian is more a creature of the entrenched political machine than Jerry Brown. Gov. Pat Brown’s son has served his fair share of time, as secretary of state, governor from 1975 to 1983, chair of the California Democratic Party, mayor of Oakland and currently as attorney general. Punctuating this exhaustive career were failed bids for the Senate and the White House. Facing a widespread crisis of confidence in business as usual in Sacramento, the Democrats’ unwise solution is nominating the quintessential representative of the status quo.
Republicans think that Californians are instead ready for a fresh face. The party has successfully tapped into voter fatigue and dissatisfaction with the old boys’ club running the state, by likely nominating Meg Whitman, the former chief executive officer of eBay Inc. As California’s first female governor, Whitman intends to bring her expertise as one of the most lauded executives in the history of business to whip California into shape. Whitman’s millions of dollars are certainly an asset to her candidacy, but her greatest benefits are her savvy and vision. Whitman faces primary competition from Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner: a gifted public servant to be sure, but one grossly outmatched.
Presuming she glides through the June 8 primary, the general election campaign will be one for the ages. Whitman, the wealthy outsider, versus Brown, the consummate insider: a larger-than-life narrative only possible in larger-than-life California.
Recently, California’s Senate election has ballooned with possibility for serious competition to an extent comparable to the gubernatorial race. Like Brown, Sen. Barbara Boxer is the known quantity: reliably liberal, well-connected, well-known, though not especially well-loved. Boxer’s biggest plus is that she’s been around for a long time (serving in the House for a decade, before heading to the Senate in 1993). Yet Boxer has always been a bit of an odd fit for California; always a few shades too far to the left, her re-elections are more due to her opponents’ flaws than her success in clicking with her constituents. In a recent poll showing 50 percent of Californians disapproving of her job performance, only 40 percent approved. After breaking a pledge to retire in 2004, Boxer is now headed for the race of her lifetime.
For Republican Senate-hopefuls, the combination of political climate and Boxer’s unpopularity makes November an encouraging pick-up possibility. With the right candidate, the party is poised to deliver a knockout punch to this “Boxer.” Assemblyman Chuck DeVore has been attracting attention from the Tea Party crowd, but is generally perceived as far too conservative, and far too unknown, to take down Boxer. Ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina is an interesting contender. Fiorina’s personal financial commitment may be dwarfed by Whitman’s, but the prospect of two no-nonsense female Republican CEOs running in November is intriguing.
Ultimately, the hands-down strongest candidate to defeat Boxer is Tom Campbell. A former Bay Area congressman, Campbell has won heavily blue districts as a socially liberal, fiscally conservative public servant, more interested in problem-solving than in rhetoric. Polite, soft-spoken and thoroughly brilliant, Campbell is also a professor who recently ran U.C. Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Should Campbell emerge from the primary, his profile will draw a stark contrast with Boxer’s: When in the House together, he was named the most fiscally responsible representative – she the 412th. Campbell can win this seat because he offers Californians what they want and need. Boxer had better pray for a DeVore or Fiorina victory.
California faces choices in its fall elections: between insider and outsider, between Republican and Democrat, between past and future. It is easy to mark California down as a “blue” state, but doing so fails to appreciate the complexity of the electorate, especially in the unique political climate of today. In the end, Californians aren’t concerned about painting the state red or blue: The future needs to be golden.
Sam Dulik is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at sdulikthehoya.com. Quorum Call appears every other Tuesday.
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