Three weeks from Tuesday, California will close out an election season that mixed illegal immigrants and Nazis, demon sheep and overseas jobs, global warming and dope smoking. More surprising, it will also close out an election that mattered.
Gone was the typical California contest, in which the results could be divined months, if not years, in advance.
California has not had a competitive race for U.S. Senate since 1994, but this year Democratic control of the U.S. Senate may rest on whether three-term incumbent Barbara Boxer can thwart a barrage of attacks from her opponent, Republican Carly Fiorina.
California has not had a competitive race for governor since 1990, but Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown were fighting furiously in a battle played out on television, on radio, on billboards and in mailboxes.
For Republicans, the California election has offered a chance to rebound from the drubbings of the last two decades and, with an unusually diverse field of statewide candidates, redefine the party in a state that long ago consigned it to minority status.
For Democrats, the California election has been a rare opportunity for success in a national landscape littered with woe, as the country's economic concerns fueled a backlash against the party in control of the White House and Congress.
Voters also will decide all of the statewide offices and nine ballot measures that confirm California's reputation for taking democracy to the extreme.
Among the best known of the measures is Proposition 23, which would stall the state's landmark global warming law. Its financing, largely from out-of-state oil companies, set up a familiar battle between energy interests and environmental groups.
Proposition 25 touches on the perennial frustrations of the California budget and would drop the legislative approval needed to pass one from two-thirds to a simple majority — a move that, had it been in effect in recent years, would have given Democrats power to pass a budget without Republican votes.
Proposition 19 occupies the requisite only-in-California position on the ballot; it would legalize marijuana use and cultivation and allow those activities to be taxed.
It has been a breathtakingly expensive campaign: more than $140 million spent by Whitman alone, including $121.5 million of her own money, a record for any political race in the country.
Yet underlying it all is the unsettled environment in California, where Arnold Schwarzenegger is lumbering to the end of his tenure as governor with dismal ratings, where the Legislature's popularity is as low as the unemployment rate is high and where faith in the future is utterly absent.
The results will tell California something about itself: whether wealthy first-time candidates can break tradition and win; whether the national anti-incumbent sentiment extends to the Pacific; whether the state's laissez-faire sentiments on cultural issues will extend to the law-and-order realm.
By appearances, this election has in its DNA two earlier contests. In 1978, Californians revolted over property taxes and passed Proposition 13. In 1994, Californians lashed at illegal immigration and passed Proposition 187. But even with huge majorities convinced that the state has ridden off the rails, the unrest seems less focused now, as if discontent has yet to find its target.
"Normally when you get those kinds of numbers, you see the citizenry taking to the streets with torches and revolting against something," said Darry Sragow, a longtime Democratic consultant and interim director of the Los Angeles Times/USC Poll. "When voters get that unhappy, they usually take it out on something. But in this cycle, there has been no foil for all that unhappiness."
The magnitude of California's problems has not altered the typical terrain of campaigns, and the big races have thus far pivoted around character and values more than issue positions. The candidates have danced around the bleak options, particularly for the state budget, beset this year by a $19-billion shortfall atop years of cutbacks.
None of the major candidates has been particularly well-liked by voters; all of them have had to fight negative attributes that accrued by virtue of their professions.
The Democrats — gubernatorial candidate Brown, a 40-year inhabitant of elective office, and three-term Senate incumbent Boxer — must convince voters that they are the rare veterans worth rewarding in a year that has often equated experience with defeat.
The Republicans — former EBay chief Whitman and former Hewlett-Packard head Fiorina, both novice candidates — must convince voters that corporate experience is a plus, even if the country is still reeling from a Wall Street-complicit economic meltdown.