Candidate Is California Dreamin’

Posted May 9, 2003 at 6:12pm

If name-dropping were a qualification for election to high office, Toni Casey would win the 2004 California Senate election in a landslide.

“Condi Rice,” says Casey, the first Republican candidate to officially enter the race, “is a good friend of mine.”

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Casey continues, is also “a good friend.” And she counts Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), John McCain (Ariz.), Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Norm Coleman (Minn.) among her informal advisers. McCain, she says, is “very supportive.”

Computer mogul David Packer backed her first campaign for city council in a small Silicon Valley town.

Bush administration and Republican heavies like Karl Rove, Ann Veneman, Ken Mehlman, Don Evans, George Schultz, Jack Oliver, Laura Bush and the president himself — she knows them all.

This is not, of course, the only basis for Casey’s long-shot Senate candidacy. But at times during a 50-minute conversation last week, it seemed that might have been the case.

Actually, with no Republican superstar yet in the nomination contest to take on Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) next year, Casey is a pretty appealing candidate on paper and in person. Attractive. Personable. A varied and interesting resume. Plugged into the wealthy Silicon Valley crowd. Fiscally conservative, but moderate on social issues. Favors abortion rights.

“My profile is exactly what it takes to win a statewide race in California,” Casey says.

And she has her fans.

Ann Stone, chairwoman of Republicans For Choice, says Casey was a forceful advocate during the platform fight over abortion at the 2000 national convention, and helped convince Republicans who favor abortion rights to embrace George W. Bush despite his stance on the issue.

“She was terrific,” Stone says. “She was a real soldier for us. She took a lot of heat. And she made us feel more comfortable about GW.”

Paul Wilson, the first national Republican consultant that Casey has hired, praises his 58-year-old client for saving money on a statewide fly-around by announcing her candidacy last week on the Internet.

“It symbolizes what we’re trying to do on this campaign, which is innovation,” Wilson says.

But privately, several other Republican operatives in California and Washington, D.C., gently suggest that Casey, a former mayor of Los Altos Hills who spent 18 months in the Bush administration as director of intergovernmental affairs at the Small Business Administration, is wildly overreaching.

“She’s expressed interest to us” in running for the Senate, is all Dan Allen, communications director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, will say.

But Casey has overreached before.

When she first ran for Los Altos Hills City Council in 1988, she bypassed the traditional preliminary step of serving on the planning commission.

“I thought it was starting at the bottom,” she explains of her race for council.

Casey says she contemplated running for the House this year but concluded that Boxer is far more vulnerable than her Congresswoman, Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.).

“Barbara Boxer,” she says, “is ‘no’ on trade. She’s ‘no’ on taxes. She’s ‘no’ on economic growth. She’s ‘no’ on the reforms we need to help businesses grow.”

Then, Casey, a transplanted Virginian, says in her pleasant Southern lilt, there’s the incumbent’s “strident personality.”

Casey says she’ll appeal to voters on a variety of fronts: as an entrepreneur in the high-tech world. As the former owner of two fast-food health restaurants. As a former health care lobbyist who knows her way around government. As the divorced mom of two grown children. As a woman who has worked closely with Asian-American business leaders in the tech world, and who can speak solid Spanish.

That she’s a political unknown without personal wealth doesn’t seem to faze the candidate. She says she can raise the $7 million to $8 million she’ll need for a GOP primary and says collecting $25 million or $30 million for the general election is “absolutely” doable.

Casey says she’ll use the Silicon Valley as a fundraising base and, in the parlance of the tech community, “viral out” to the rest of the state. She has already attended three Lincoln Day dinners.

Last week, while her Web page, www.tonicaseyforsenate.com, was supposed to be going live with the news that she was entering the Senate race (it did not appear to be working on Friday, however), Casey was in D.C., to speak to Republican leaders and sublet the apartment she rented here while she worked for the SBA.

“I’m going to need it in 18 months,” she says, “when I’m a Senator.”