Fiorina Surges in Primary Polls; Can a Conservative Win a California Senate Race?

Posted May 31, 2010 at 11:20am

California businesswoman Carly Fiorina has surged in the polls ahead of the June 8 Republican Senate primary and is likely to face Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) in what could be one of the most competitive Senate races in the nation’s most populous state.

A Boxer-Fiorina race would test whether a self-described economic and social-issue conservative Republican can prevail in a Democratic-leaning state where successful statewide Republican candidates, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, more often than not have tacked to the political center.

Though Boxer is a slight favorite to win re-election, the anti-incumbent atmosphere in California and the prospect of a low-turnout election provide an opening for a conservative candidate to win in the fall.

Fiorina has primarily been painting Boxer as too liberal for California and has been emphasizing her background in business and ideas to boost the economy.

“I think that a conservative can win in California,” said Amy Thoma, a spokeswoman for Fiorina’s campaign. “The anti-incumbent mood is strong. People are tired of being taxed at such high rates and tired at giving money to the government.”

But Democratic officials say Fiorina has staked out positions that will be anathema to many general election voters, including her opposition to abortion and her support for repealing the new health care law. They allege Fiorina was compelled to tack right in part because of the candidacy of Chuck DeVore, a state assemblyman with whom she has been competing for the conservative voters who hold sway in Republican primaries.

“Carly Fiorina has staked out extreme right-wing positions that are out of step with mainstream Californians in an effort to win this blood-letting Republican primary,” said Deirdre Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Fiorina is just another politician who caters to extremists in the Republican Party, and her leap to the right will cost her credibility with California’s general election voters.”

Fiorina isn’t running from the conservative label. A May 26 fundraising solicitation under Fiorina’s name was notable for some strongly conservative supporters she identified in large print at the top of the request: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and the National Right to Life Committee, among other individuals and groups.

Fiorina also is getting assistance in the primary from the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion organization that is spending more than $200,000 to help her win the primary. The group also plans to help her in the general election against Boxer, who has long been one of the highest-profile backers of abortion rights.

Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said the abortion question for Fiorina “has been a top-tier issue, and she speaks about it regularly.” She said Fiorina pledged she will not distance herself from anti-abortion groups in the fall campaign, as other Republicans have done.

“They duck and hide on the issue and then allow the other side to define their position for them,” she said. “It’s an enormous mistake on any issue. She doesn’t want, and of course we don’t want, but more importantly Carly Fiorina doesn’t want Barbara Boxer defining her position. But this will be an issue in the campaign without fail.”

While several political strategists noted the obvious differences between Boxer and Fiorina on social issues, they said economic concerns would rank first and foremost in voters’ minds at a time when the California economy is struggling.

Using social issues to club Republican opponents “has been the playbook for Boxer every time,” said Dave Gilliard, a California-based Republican consultant who is not involved in the race. “But it doesn’t seem like this year those issues are in the forefront at all.”

Rose Kapolczynski, Boxer’s campaign manager, said that a majority of California voters support abortion rights and that Fiorina is “out of step with that pro-choice majority.” But, she added, “the issue that is on the top of most voters’ minds is job creation and the economy. While there will no doubt be a variety of issues discussed in the campaign, I’m just expecting that most of the campaign will focus on economic issues.”

Republicans said one advantage Fiorina has in a general election that previous Boxer opponents have lacked is strong fundraising, namely her ability to augment her contributions from individual donors and political action committees with some of her ample personal wealth.

Fiorina’s campaign reported last week that it raised $2.1 million between April 1 and May 19 and $7.4 million overall, of which $3.6 million came from her own pockets. That’s about as much as 2004 GOP nominee Bill Jones raised for his entire Senate campaign.

“We’ve always thought out here in California that Boxer was vulnerable, but the biggest problem we had is that we always ran out of gas — our candidate ran out of money — and we could never quite compete with the millions that she had. That won’t be an issue this time,” said Johnny Amaral, the chief of staff to California Rep. Devin Nunes (R), a Fiorina backer.

Boxer will be better-funded than ever. She had $9.6 million in the bank as of May 19. Six years ago, she had $7 million on hand at the end of June.

The Senator is getting plenty of fundraising help from President Barack Obama, who has already attended several money-raising events to boost her re-election prospects. At one of two fundraisers May 25 to benefit Boxer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Obama touted her work on energy and environmental policy and described her as “a woman with extraordinarily deep passion to fight for all of you on a whole range of issues.”