After the Recall: A Boxer Rebellion?

Posted July 25, 2003 at 6:07pm

With California riveted to the recall election of Gov. Gray Davis (D), now scheduled for Oct. 7, it’s easy to forget that Golden State voters will be going to the polls 13 months later to pass judgment on Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) and scores of other officials.

An independent poll released last week showed that despite the explosion of voter anger directed at the governor, Boxer has in fact improved her position compared to three months earlier. Republicans continue to flounder in their attempts to find a well-known, well-funded challenger.

But in the state’s current chaotic political environment, Boxer can take nothing for granted.

“Because of this unscheduled stop this October in the November 2004 election cycle, no one knows what the tenor of the times is going to be,” said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which analyzes political races across the state. “We don’t even know who the governor is going to be.”

What’s more, no one knows who all the contenders in the special election are going to be — and that too could affect future politics in the Golden State. The filing deadline for the recall election is Aug. 9.

Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Democrats remain hopeful that Boxer won’t suffer blowback from Davis’ plight.

“People distinguish the political shenanigans going on at the state level and what they do in a federal race,” he said. “There’s too much space and time between the two [elections]. I don’t think the voters blame her for anything going on at the state level.”

But even Woodhouse conceded: “Dynamics [of the recall] could change things.”

There are any number of scenarios involved in the recall election — and they increase exponentially when their potential impact on the 2004 election is measured. On the macro level, California’s beleaguered Republican Party, buoyed by getting the recall on the ballot and the anti-incumbent sentiment that appears to have taken hold in the state, could enter 2004 with unfamiliar political juice.

“It has the potential to create momentum for the Republican Party that could hurt Barbara Boxer and the Democrat Party candidate who winds up being the nominee against President Bush,” said Rob Stutzman, a consultant to the California GOP.

Boxer could be further damaged, Stutzman said, if she decides to actively campaign on Davis’ behalf during the short-lived recall election. While every high-level Democratic Party official in the state has come out against the recall, it is unclear how many politicians — especially those with even remotely competitive races in the years ahead — will want to be seen as embracing the unpopular governor.

In 1998, when Davis was first elected governor and Boxer was winning a second term, he finished 20 points ahead of his Republican opponent, while she finished 10 points ahead of hers.

If the recall puts a strong Republican governor in place, that could help the entire GOP ticket in 2004, party professionals said.

“We need a Republican governor to create a Republican infrastructure,” said Sal Russo, a state GOP consultant who helped organize the recall movement.

In theory, the recall election could also create potential candidates for Senate in 2004.

The main Republican competitors so far in the Senate race appear to be former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, former Los Altos Hills Mayor Toni Casey and state Assemblyman Tony Strickland. But it is possible that a Republican runner-up in the recall election who has made a good showing on Oct. 7 could keep on campaigning — for the GOP Senate nod.

“The biggest obstacle for candidates in California is it’s such a big state,” Russo said. “It’s a quintessential media state. You need to build name ID.”

A competitive recall campaign could, conceivably, take care of that problem.

But it’s hard to say which of the potential Republican candidates for governor might look to the Senate race if they fall short in the recall.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R), who single-handedly resuscitated the dying recall movement in the spring with $1.5 million from his own pocket, was the first candidate to have formally entered the gubernatorial election. His first foray into politics was an unsuccessful run for the Republican Senate nomination in 1998.

While Issa was mentioned as a possible contender for the 2004 Senate race before the recall took off, he is seen as loathe to sacrifice his safe House seat in 2004 if he is not elected governor this fall.

“I wouldn’t even contemplate [the Senate election],” said Jonathan Wilcox, communications director for Issa’s gubernatorial campaign. “We’re totally focused on this race.”

While polls show Issa lagging in the recall election against other potential contenders, he is clearly hoping that his bold move to finance Davis’ ouster wins him lasting gratitude among voters, even if he falls short in the governor’s race.

Wilcox said the recall, regardless of the outcome, would alter state politics.

“The recall’s already having an effect,” he said. “I think you’re seeing direct democracy and field activity that you’ve never seen before. And when this is successful, it’s going to change a lot of things.”

Wilcox said the recall represents a wake-up call to all entrenched politicians in California because “it’s a major, significant departure from business as usual.”

Most of the other Republicans who have publicly considered entering the recall election as of Roll Call’s Friday deadline — movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, former California Secretary of State Bill Jones, 2002 GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon and state Sen. Tom McClintock — are considered likely to pass on the 2004 Senate race. But former Rep. Michael Huffington (R) spent $30 million in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) in 1994.

Whatever optimism Republicans may have for the lasting effects of the recall is tempered by the knowledge that even if voters choose to remove Davis in October, they could select a Democrat as the alternative — even though no well-known Democrat has come forward to run. If that Democrat remains popular, it could kill all GOP chances in California next year.

“That’s the worst-case scenario,” Stutzman said.

California Republican Party Chairman Duf Sundheim has asked potential gubernatorial candidates in the recall to put off submitting their candidacy papers until the Aug. 9 filing deadline, even if they announce their intention to run earlier, Stutzman said. That way, party leaders can try to anoint the strongest possible candidate if it appears that a strong Democrat is preparing to run.

For now, state Democratic leaders insist they will not field a candidate on the recall ballot and will instead try to convince voters to stick with Davis. But no one is sure how resolute they will be as the filing deadline nears, especially if Davis’ poll ratings continue to be so low.

“I can’t believe they would sign a suicide pact,” Russo said.