Barbara Boxer's secret weapon

Poll numbers are shaky for the three-term California liberal. But she's still in good shape to survive in November

Published March 24, 2010 7:25PM (EDT)

  (AP/Toby Talbot)
(AP/Toby Talbot)

In a series of recent polls, Barbara Boxer, one of the Senate’s preeminent liberals, has found herself virtually tied with her Republican challengers. These surveys show that a troublingly large segment of California voters view the senator unfavorably, leading to concerns in Democratic circles that she could lose in the fall.

But despite these tepid poll numbers, Boxer actually remains a fairly safe bet for another term. The reason, ironically enough, has to do with the anti-Democratic national political climate. Let me explain. 

With Democrats potentially facing deep losses in the House and Senate in November, Republicans are staring at an appetizing menu of races in which to invest their resources. It is this abundance of electoral opportunity that could save Boxer. Funding a campaign in California against a deep-pocketed incumbent probably won’t be as attractive an option as the many other winnable races in less expensive media markets.

Just consider the Senate targets Republicans will be choosing from. Currently, they have a good chance to pick up Democratic-held open seats in Delaware, Illinois, Indiana and North Dakota. Similarly, in Arkansas, Colorado, Nevada and Pennsylvania the GOP has reasonable odds of ousting sitting Democrats. And don’t forget that the party must also defend open seats in Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Ohio.

Taken together, these races will be immensely expensive and will cost nearly all of the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s campaign coffers to win. In fact, this may already be too much for the NRSC. Especially if the climate shifts, it may have to opt out of some of these races.

In a nutshell, there simply won’t be enough money for national Republicans to help fund a credible challenge to Boxer in California. Right now, the NRSC has $12.9 million on hand, after raising nearly $10 million in the first two months of 2010 -- a very impressive sum that has slightly surpassed the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s haul for the year. (But to be fair, the DSCC has $14.3 million on hand.) For her part, Boxer’s campaign committee ended last year with over $7 million in the bank, a number that will surely balloon.

To run in California against a three-term senator and superb fundraiser, the GOP would need to spend tens of millions of dollars (including the amount the eventual Republican nominee ends up raising). The state is littered with pricey television markets -- Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Fresno, Sacramento and elsewhere. Essentially, the financial costs of waging a statewide political campaign in California are so prohibitive that they will deter the GOP and help Boxer even as she faces an angry electorate in the fall.

Democrats learned this same lesson in a different state two years ago, when they initially believed they had a chance of defeating Texas Republican John Cornyn.

There are several important similarities between these two races. First is each incumbent’s reputation. Boxer has never been as well-liked or -regarded in California as her quieter, more centrist Senate counterpart, Dianne Feinstein; Cornyn himself a staunch partisan, has never enjoyed the same high approval ratings of his Texas colleague, Kay Bailey Hutchison, the epitome of a courtly, country club Republican. Then there’s the climate. Just as Republican hopes of beating Boxer are buoyed by this year’s anti-Democratic tide, Democrats in ’08 thought that year’s anti-GOP tide would aid them against Cornyn. And in Tom Campbell and Carly Fiorina, Republicans have two credible potential nominees in California, just as Texas Democrats had a strong, albeit not stellar, challenger to Cornyn in Rick Noriega.

Back in '08, Chuck Schumer, the DSCC’s wily chairman, decided to pass on dumping much campaign cash in Texas despite the opportunity there. Instead, he invested in Alaska, Colorado, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon and Virginia – races that all resulted in Democratic pickups. The prospect of potentially winning a seat in Texas may have been tempting to Schumer, but purchasing ads in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and elsewhere would have cost as much as two or more of those other states combined. It wasn’t a wise investment for Democrats and, thus, Cornyn survived.

In an ironic twist, it is Cornyn who is now at the helm of this NRSC, making him the main decision-maker when it comes to spreading resources. With at least 13 winnable key Senate races in front of him (all of them cheaper than California), he can can be expected to pass on throwing money at the Golden State this year.

So despite her shaky standing with voters and the likelihood of big Democratic losses in the midterms, expect Barbara Boxer to survive and come back to Washington for a fourth term, much to the consternation of Republicans everywhere. 

By Mark Greenbaum

Mark Greenbaum is a freelance writer in Washington.

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2010 Elections Barbara Boxer D-calif.