Over the past two decades, California Republicans have had little success at winning statewide races because the sort of candidates who could win a GOP primary were too far to the right for the state’s electorate. Think Bruce Herschensohn in the 1992 Senate race or Bill Simon in the 2002 Governor’s race. (That Schwarzenegger managed to win the governorship is in great part due to the unique circumstances of the primary-less recall vote.) In 2010, the GOP has some hope of contesting the Golden State’s top races, but the primaries will be as decisive as usual.
The Republican many believe is the most electable in a general election is former Rep. Tom Campbell. While Campbell has been running for Governor since the beginning of the year, he is now reportedly considering switching gears and jumping in the Senate race. First heard on Chris Cillizza’s blog, the possibility was confirmed by the San Fransisco Chronicle; it looks like Campbell is at this point taking his time in considering his options.
The interest that this potential switcheroo is sparking is a good opportunity to look into Campbell, who has certainly been the lowest profile of the GOP’s field of candidates. While his standing in polls has been far stronger than expected, Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, Chuck DeVore and Steve Poizner have been attracting more attention.
Why might Campbell be a good candidate for Republicans? During the roughly 9 years he spent in the House (from 1988 through 1992 and from 1995 through 2000) , Campbell had a socially moderate record (he was one of 36 Republicans to oppose the 1999 Largent amendment, which banned adoption by same-sex couples in D.C.). What also gives him a good shot at portraying himself as an nonthreatening Republican in this blue state is the fact that he hasn’t played a major role in politics over the past decade, during which the GOP brand tarnished itself further. He left Congress in 2000 and thus cannot be easily associated with the Bush years.
And yet, Campbell comes with vulnerabilities of his own. For one, Democrats would be sure to attack him on his association with the unpopular Schwarzenegger, for whom he headed the state Department of Finance for one year. Second, this is his third statewide bid; he lost the GOP’s Senate nomination in 1992 and he was crushed by Diane Feinstein in the general election of the 2000 Senate race. These races give him experience on the campaign trail, but it also probably signals that he does not have what it takes to be the GOP’s savior.
Perhaps most importantly, Campbell faces one daunting challenge to winning either the primary or the general election: money. He has for now raised only $1 million in his Governor’s race. While a recent poll found him in a statistical tie for first with Whitman in the gubernatorial primary, that won’t last long if he cannot stay financially competitive against his two multimillionaire opponents. Indeed: This week, Steve Poizner announced he was donating $15 million to his own campaign, and Whitman has already given herself a similar sum!
Poizner and Whitman’s wealth not only give them an overwhelming advantage over Campbell, but it also makes it hard to see how the latter could truly be the most electable general election candidate. Unfortunately, money is a big factor in deciding elections, and that is all the more so the case in a huge state like California. Also, the Republican nominee will face an uphill climb against Jerry Brown, who has a huge war chest of his own: If Campbell manages to clinch the nomination, could he rebound quickly enough not to immediately collapse under Brown’s attacks?
All of these factors might be why he is considering switching to the Senate race. Sure, the Republican primary would be no cakewalk (Carly Fiorina and Chuck DeVore have long been running) and he would eventually have to beat an incumbent, but there is arguably more of an opening for him.
Fiorina has had trouble imposing herself and she signaled back in September that she wouldn’t self-fund (a stark contrast to Whitman); but DeVore, while he has gained traction thanks to his conservative politics, lacks the stature to take full advantage of that - not to mention that he does not have the financial resources with which Poizner is preparing to go after Whitman. As for the general election, Boxer’s numbers have been somewhat underwhelming. While she remains heavily favored to win a fourth term, the fact that the national electorate appears to be in an anti-incumbent mood could potentially make the race worth watching if Republicans nominate someone who looks acceptable voters.
All of this said, there are also major obstacles to envisioning Campbell as a strong Senate recruit. For one, he wouldn’t be allowed to transfer the $1 million he already has; starting a statewide campaign in California from scratch this late in the cycle seems to me to be hard to pull off. Second, voters would be more reluctant to bucking their usual party loyalty in a federal race than a state race. Third, Campbell gained no traction in the 2000 general, losing to Feinstein by 23%. Fourth, while I mentioned that Boxer’s numbers have been underwhelming - she is generally polling under 50% - they are still as strong as they need to be for her to feel safe in a blue state; even Rasmussen gives her a +10% approval rating.
In short: Campbell might be a stronger general election candidate than Republicans are used to fielding, but the bottom line is that California remains too blue for the GOP to win statewide without benefiting from bizarrely favorable circumstances. At this point, the political stars are not aligning in a way that should make California Democrats lose sleep.