Lonely Runners

Hoopla Drowns Out Cal. Senate Race

Posted August 29, 2003 at 4:22pm


We interrupt this special made-for-TV movie to return, temporarily, to our regularly scheduled programming.


Lost in all the hoopla surrounding the California recall election is the fact that the Golden State’s 2004 Senate election is also under way, more or less.

The Oct. 7 recall vote is a 135-candidate free-for-all and includes an international superstar, a has-been TV actor, a stripper, a pornographer, a self-promoting political commentator, countless dreamers, a couple of legitimate politicians, and a beleaguered governor fighting for his political life.

The Senate race features an entrenched two-term Democrat and a few earnest Republicans who are preparing to take her on.

While nobody was looking last month, a new potential candidate set up an exploratory committee for a Senate run: state Assemblyman Tony Strickland (R). He joined former Los Altos Hills Mayor Toni Casey, who has officially declared, and former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, who has set up an exploratory committee of her own, as the three most credible Republican contenders seeking to oust Sen. Barbara Boxer (D).

But while Democrats scramble to save endangered Gov. Gray Davis (D) — or at least install Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (D) as his replacement — no one is sweating the GOP Senate field at the moment.

“The Republicans can’t find a top-tier candidate or a candidate they can come to any kind of consensus on,” crowed Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Even if they found a halfway decent candidate tomorrow, no one would pay attention.”

That is the essential challenge for the Republicans: How do you run for Senate when the entire world is focusing on the recall? And could the outcome of the recall in any way expand the Republican field or brighten GOP prospects in a race that appears to be Boxer’s to lose?

The Casey, Marin and Strickland camps all say that their candidates are basically proceeding as if things were normal, moving around the state, talking to party activists and relevant interest groups.

“On a day-to-day basis, it’s not having a major impact,” said Kevin Spillane, a consultant for Marin. “We assumed this was going to happen. We talked about the dog days of summer. Even if there was no recall, we wouldn’t be getting much media attention anyway.”

All three contenders have endorsed the recall and argue that the movement is energizing Golden State Republicans and creating momentum for 2004.

“The first order of business is to recall Gray Davis,” Strickland said. “After we recall Gray Davis, it’s time to retire Barbara Boxer. Sometimes that line gets more applause than the line about Gray Davis.”

But a national Republican operative who did not want to be named cautioned that much of the GOP anger could be spent on the recall, and said the results could be disastrous if Davis beats back the challenge — or even if he loses the recall but Bustamante is chosen to replace him.

Casey said that, temporarily at least, the recall is also depleting GOP strategists in California who could be advising the Senate candidates.

“Everyone has been sucked up in the recall as far as the Republican talent, which is not plentiful anyway,” she said.

While endorsing the recall, Strickland, Marin and Casey have taken different approaches to the ultimate outcome. Marin has not backed any of the candidates seeking to replace Davis. Strickland, who is probably the farthest to the right of the Senate trio, has endorsed the strongest conservative in the recall race, state Sen. Tom McClintock (R), and has stumped for him in conservative counties.

Casey has released an opinion article endorsing movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), and argues that a Gov. Schwarzenegger could shake up the state political power structure in a way that would be beneficial to all Republican candidates.

“I believe the piercing light from the press that will be on Sacramento with Arnold can only help bring real reform,” she said. “He’s going to be able to get things done and change the direction that the state has been going in.”

To the extent that anyone is handicapping the Senate GOP race so far, a few early conclusions can be made. Although there was a small buzz about her potential earlier in the summer because she is a politically moderate Latina, Marin — whose only stint as an elected official was as mayor of Huntington Park, a community that borders Los Angeles — has not overwhelmed anybody yet. She has not gotten any overt backing from the White House, which some political observers thought was inevitable, and she has not scared off other Republicans.

As the most conservative candidate in the field, Strickland starts with an advantage in the GOP primary. But because he is a term-limited Assemblyman and only 33 years old, some Republican insiders believe that Strickland is exploring a Senate run simply to gain statewide name recognition for a future, more winnable election.

“He is someone who is definitely looking for someplace else to land,” said one California Republican strategist.

What’s more, Strickland is expending political energy helping his wife, Audra Strickland, a one-time chief of staff to former California Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R), in a tough primary to win his Ventura County-based legislative seat in 2004.

And it’s not clear that the Republican Senate field has closed. When businessman Bill Simon — the Republican gubernatorial nominee in 2002 — dropped out of the recall election on Aug. 23, many Democrats and some Republicans wondered whether GOP heavyweights had promised him a clear field to the Senate nomination.

“Bill Simon must tell the people of California who made the call to him and what was the deal to get him out of the race,” said Art Torres, chairman of the California Democratic Party.

But Sal Russo, a consultant to Simon, said Simon’s decision to drop out was his own.He also said Simon plans to return to the stump in the next few days — on behalf of the recall but no specific candidate — and would at least consider running for Senate in 2004, even though he’s more interested in state affairs.

“He hasn’t ruled it out,” Russo said. “He’s been open to it. That hasn’t been his passion.”

Some observers wonder whether Rep. Darrell Issa (R), who bankrolled the recall and began running for governor before dropping out last month, will run for Senate in 2004. Issa began his political career seeking the GOP Senate nomination in 1998, and clearly is not interested in a long career in the House.

Issa, Capitol Hill spokesman Frederick Hill, and gubernatorial campaign manager Scott Taylor did not respond to phone messages late last week.

In an interview published Thursday in The Forward newspaper, Issa said he would address the California GOP convention in mid-September and would likely endorse a fiscal conservative in the recall.

“I’m in an enviable position,” he said. “I get credit for starting this revolution and get a ring-side seat to watch it.”

Still other candidates could come forward. There is now some speculation in Washington that former California Secretary of State Bill Jones, who finished third in the 2002 Republican primary for governor, could join the Senate race.

Meanwhile, Boxer has spent the August recess attending to constituent concerns back home. When asked, she says she opposes the recall but plans to vote for Bustamante in case the recall passes.

That’s the position that all 33 California House Democrats have staked out — but stands in contrast to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has said she’ll vote no and is so incensed by the recall that she won’t pick an alternative to Davis.