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Emboldened GOP Ponders the Odds of Unseating Boxer

Will anti-incumbent fervor transfer to U.S. Senate race? Democrats say that's a reach.

October 20, 2003|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

The recall of Gov. Gray Davis has given some Republicans hope of unseating another powerful Democrat -- U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. The question is: Has it also exhausted the voters' zeal for change that GOP challengers need to unseat the two-term senator?

With the Senate primaries less than five months away, only a few Republicans, none well-known statewide, are either running or exploring a bid against Boxer. Still unknown is whether any other candidates, encouraged by Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory, will jump into the race. Also unclear is whether the new governor will use his political capital to influence the outcome.

Not surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans disagree whether the outcome of the recall will affect the state's next big race.

While the recall was fueled by voter discontent toward Davis, some political analysts doubt that such anger will be easily transferred to Boxer, even if she is a liberal Democrat who supported Davis and campaigned against the recall.

"Republicans will be wrong to overreach," said Martin Kaplan, a former Democratic campaign aide and dean of USC's Annenberg School for Communication. "Gray Davis is one of the most unpopular politicians in California history. That is not Barbara Boxer."

The passions may have died down by next year, Democratic strategist Bill Carrick said.

"The recall makes it tougher because the state of California is having a political hangover," said Carrick, who is sitting out the Senate race. He also predicted that the presidential primary in March will draw energy and attention away from the Senate race.

Still, Republican party leaders and some challengers say Boxer is more vulnerable since voters gave Schwarzenegger the keys to the governor's office.

"If anyone has to be nervous about the results of the election, it is Barbara Boxer," said GOP consultant Allan Hoffenblum.

That is because, other Republicans say, Schwarzenegger's strong win re-energized the party faithful.

"This is a year when Republicans are feeling better about their chances," said Ken Khachigian, a GOP strategist for former U.S. Treasurer and possible Boxer challenger Rosario Marin.

Boxer, a 12-year veteran of the Senate, said she heard similar predictions about her vulnerability during her last two campaigns.

"They called me whatever they wanted -- but at the end of the day, they still called me senator," she said.

Boxer has two overriding advantages as she seeks reelection.

Despite Schwarzenegger's victory, Democrats still enjoy a significant advantage in the number of registered voters; California has sided with the Democratic candidate in the five U.S. Senate contests since 1992.

Also, California is by far the most expensive state in which to run a campaign, meaning the winner needs either a hefty personal bankroll or an extensive donor list from which to procure the $2,000 maximum federal donations.

Boxer expects to spend $15 million to $20 million on the race. Already, her campaign has reported raising more than $7.35 million as of the end of September and has more than $4 million on hand.

Among her possible GOP opponents, Silicon Valley businesswoman Toni Casey, who served three years as mayor of Los Altos, has raised more than $540,000 and has about $322,000 on hand for the same period, according to her campaign.

Assemblyman Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark) -- who announced his candidacy Wednesday -- has collected nearly $74,000 and has almost $48,000 on hand, according to his campaign.

Marin has yet to file a finance statement or to officially announce a bid. She left her job as treasurer earlier this year to return to Huntington Park, where she had served as mayor.

Democratic strategists argue that the Republican lineup shows the Senate race will be starkly different from the recall campaign.

Davis, after all, was challenged by a multimillionaire movie star with worldwide name recognition. To beat Boxer, USC political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe said, a challenger must have strong name recognition and the ability to raise a formidable campaign war chest.

"It has to be someone with a bit more gravitas name recognition than those names that have been floated around," she said.

USC communications dean Kaplan and others argue that the Republican party's best chance of beating Boxer is to nominate a moderate candidate. But historically, moderate candidates have been forced out during the primary by the party's conservative wing. The lack of a primary was seen as central to the moderate Schwarzenegger's decision to enter the recall race, though he ultimately won a huge majority of conservative votes.

While Republican candidates will spend a big chunk of their money battling each other in the primary, political analysts say Boxer will be able to save most of her war chest for the general election in November.

"I think Sen. Boxer is in good shape," said Carrick.

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