BERKELEY — Former California Secretary of State Bill Jones is running against Sen. Barbara Boxer for U.S. Senate. But he's in almost as tough a race against President Bush.
Boxer should be vulnerable. A Democrat, she has been in Congress nearly a quarter-century (11 years in the Senate, 10 in the House), and Californians are looking for new leadership, as last year's governor's race shows. Jones is a Republican who has twice demonstrated his ability to win statewide office.
But to defeat an incumbent, a challenger has to match the incumbent's spending. That's where the president comes in.
As the Jones campaign looks for donors around the state, it's finding again and again that the president got there first. Federal limits for a presidential campaign allow an individual to give up to $2,000 in the primary and another $2,000 in the general election, so that might seem to leave wealthy Bush donors with plenty to give Jones.
But the Bush campaign and its allies have perfected the art of extracting the maximum $57,500 that a person can give to all federal campaigns. The law allows a person to give only $4,000 directly to the Bush reelection campaign, but you can also give $25,000 to the national Republican Party, $10,000 to the state Republican Party and $5,000 each to any of the many independent federal political committees that will ultimately spend the money they raise on trying to get the president reelected.
All of which means that Jones is finding that a lot of potential donors can do nothing to help him because they've already given the overall maximum.
The same may be happening on the Democratic side to some degree. But in the Boxer-Jones race, Jones has a severe disadvantage. An incumbent senator has some claim on the national party's fundraising. It's likely that Democrats with $57,500 to give are not giving it all to Sen. John F. Kerry and the Democratic Party, in part because Boxer has enough clout with the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to prevent it. A challenger running at the same time as the president of his own party has very little leverage to make the same claim.
In some states, the president's fundraising won't be felt as acutely by Republican candidates as it is here. If the party and the many committees it controls spend heavily on the Bush campaign in a state, other Republican candidates in that state will benefit from a trickle-down effect. Republican voters brought to the polls in efforts funded by the Bush campaign will probably vote for other Republicans as well.
In California, though, neither presidential campaign will be spending much to get voters to the polls, because California isn't a battleground state. The money raised here is much more likely to be spent drawing voters to the polls in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida -- states where a swing of 1 or 2 percentage points could determine the outcome of the national election.
There is resentment brewing in California Republican circles -- and, I suspect, Democratic as well -- about what all this is doing to Senate and House challengers. But it's just about impossible to overcome the fact that donors find presidential politics more interesting than your typical Senate or House race. When Bush asks for help, California Republican donors will say yes. When Kerry asks, California Democratic donors will say yes. And that means down-ticket challengers will go begging.
I wish that Californians would make candidates in the state their top priority. We need to build up our local parties and support those courageous enough to run against incumbents. Instead, we'll be funding TV attack ads in Florida.
There is one approach that would change all this: We could make California a battleground state. A way to do this would be to change the absurd rule that awards all our electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins a plurality of the popular vote. Instead, we could award our 55 electoral votes proportionately, allotting them to candidates according to the percentage of the vote each receives.
Although most states, like California, are winner-take-all, Maine and Nebraska have variations on that system in which some of the electoral votes allocated to the state are apportioned according to the candidates' showings in individual congressional districts.
If California moved to such a system -- or, better yet, to full proportional allocation of its electoral college votes -- the result would be that Bush and Kerry would both have to campaign in California, not just pop in to raise funds that would be spent elsewhere. They'd have to take California seriously because an improvement of less than 2 points in their California statewide totals would translate to an additional electoral vote. Presidencies can turn on a single electoral vote: remember 2000?
The presidential candidates would still solicit donations here, but California would cease being an ATM for other states. The money raised here would be spent here -- and local races would benefit as a result.
If a real political battle for president were to be waged in our state, it would make incumbent officeholders in both parties a bit nervous. That's not a bad thing, either.