Yesterday California Republicans turned to two very similar candidates when they fielded their nominees for governor and U.S. Senate. Both former CEOs. Both women. Both the preferred candidates of the GOP establishment who had to convince skeptical conservatives they were at least conservative enough.
On the same night that the Los Angeles Lakers clinched Game 3 of the NBA Finals in Boston, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman won the right to stand against career Democratic politician Jerry Brown's attempt to return to the governorship. Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was the GOP's choice to run against screechy liberal Sen. Barbara Boxer.
Whitman nearly stumbled when she said she would have vetoed a law similar to Arizona's SB 1070, a get-tough approach to illegal immigration. Immigration powered Pete Wilson's improbable Golden State comeback in 1994 and seems to have rescued Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's re-election bid this year. So California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner sensed an opening and pounced.
But Whitman neutralized the issue when she deftly embraced the general principles of the enforcement-first position on illegal immigration without endorsing the specifics of the controversial Arizona law. She vowed to be "tough as nails" on illegal immigration and emphasized her opposition to amnesty. Poizner's own conservative credentials were somewhat ambiguous and he was never able to get clearly to the right of Whitman, the free-spending GOP frontrunner.
Whitman spent $81 million of her own money to win the Republican nomination and has pledged to spend "whatever it takes" to beat Brown in November. Poizner spent $25 million of his own money in a primary that ended up being the most expensive election in state history.
Carly Fiorina took a somewhat different path to the Republican senatorial nomination. Early on, it looked like she might be caught up in the nationwide insurgency against establishment candidates, fitting into the Tea Party versus the National Republican Senatorial Committee narrative. But two factors intervened to save her from this fate.
The first was that Chuck DeVore, the Republican state assemblyman running to Fiorina's right, proved to be a strong conservative but a weak candidate. He struggled to raise money and his somewhat thin-skinned persona did not endear him to voters. Then an even bigger gift came in the form of Tom Campbell, a former congressman who abandoned the gubernatorial race to run for Senate.
Campbell once fancied himself as something of a libertarian, but he increasingly became a liberal Republican over the years. He had a history of supporting tax increases, was pro-choice and stridently hostile to social conservatives, and his efforts at Muslim outreach a decade ago led to charges that he was soft on terror and insufficiently supportive of Israel.
Fiorina was then able to obscure her differences with DeVore and run to the right of Campbell. She campaigned as a pro-life, fiscally conservative, hawkish candidate and while some of her positions were vague -- giving herself wiggle room to move back to the center after winning the primary -- they were solid enough compared to Campbell's record. Fiorina became the viable conservative in the race and ended up winning big.
Will it matter come November? That much remains to be seen. The polling suggests that both elections will be competitive -- and that Californians despise their politicians, incumbent and challenger alike. It is the most favorable political climate for Republicans since 1994, but even then the GOP came up short in a tight Senate race.
DeVore contemptuously referred to Fiorina as a "rich dilettante" during the primary campaign. Both Republican women will be vulnerable to such charges in the general. Whitman is running against a Democrat who knows how to play the populist card. Fiorina will face an incumbent senator who is always vulnerable but never beaten.
Both Whitman and Fiorina will be called upon to defend their business records. Hewlett Packard fired Fiorina; in 2002, congressional investigators accused Whitman of giving Goldman Sachs a sweetheart deal when she hired the unpopular firm to handle eBay's banking business. Neither Wall Street nor Washington are admired by Californians. The Democrats have a huge registration advantage, but a 12.6 unemployment rate makes the status quo untenable. Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is much less popular than Democratic President Barack Obama.
When Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein ran for the Senate in 1992, pundits dubbed them "Thelma and Louise." Political columnist Lou Cannon says that Whitman and Fiorina are the Republicans' Thelma and Louise. We'll see which Thelma and Louise they emulate. Boxer and Feinstein both won their elections. But in the movie, Thelma and Louise both ended up driving off a cliff.
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