With the voters' verdict only eight nail-biting weeks away, the outcome of California's general election rests on the answer to one question: What happens when the national Republican wave crashes into the state's Democratic seawall?
Across the country, Democrats are morose and Republicans jubilant about their prospects, with the intransigent economy feeding a voter revolt against the party that controls the White House and Congress. Prognosticators are competing to issue dire predictions of sweeping Democratic losses in legislatures, governor's offices, congressional delegations and Senate seats.
Yet California, at least for now, is different. The two top races, for governor and U.S. Senate, are acknowledged by all sides to be too close to call, a victory of sorts for both parties. Few expect much adjustment in the legislative or congressional lineups. Part of the reason is structural: District lines drawn to protect incumbents have isolated the lawmaking houses from both Democratic and Republican tides for a decade. Part is geographical: Even powerful storms lose their strength as they blow from Washington to the West Coast.
And part is a quirk of timing: With California voters angry at a Republican governor and a Democratic Legislature, on which party do they exact revenge?
"It's a pretty mixed-up mess politically here, and if the voters are trying to figure out who to throw out or keep, it doesn't have the same kind of partisan polarization that you see in some other places," said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, a 20-year veteran of California campaigns.
The state is being buffeted by powerful yet contradictory forces. Republicans in California are more galvanized than at any time since the last GOP wave in 1994, yet their registration numbers have fallen to their lowest point. Democrats have boosted their ranks and managed to hold their own against an onslaught by moneyed GOP candidates, but they face serious problems motivating their voters in November. The growing lot of nonpartisan voters is less fond of Democrats but still favors them over Republicans.
Victories by Republicans in the races for governor and U.S. Senate would mark a sharp repudiation of the state's biggest political party. The most pointed would come with a win by GOP nominee Carly Fiorina in the contest against three-term Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer, which would overturn decades of truisms about state politics.
Since 1988 no race in California for president, governor or U.S. Senate has been won by a candidate from either party who opposes abortion rights or favors oil drilling off the coast. Fiorina holds both views, along with support for gun rights that run counter to positions held by senators and governors of both parties since the 1980s.
Republicans contend that voters are worried solely about jobs and foreclosures.
"If this was a usual election, guns, abortion and all that would have impact," said GOP demographer Tony Quinn. "The reason Barbara Boxer is in danger is economics.... The fact that Fiorina carries conservative views that are out of step with the state is largely irrelevant this year."
Democrats, however, assert that although economic issues are paramount, Fiorina's views on the other issues will convince voters that she is too extreme for the state. And that, they argue, will dovetail with their contention that her layoff-marked tenure as chief of Hewlett-Packard demonstrates the extreme nature of her economic positions as well.
"It's going to give a window into that person's priorities and perspectives, and that's going to then allow us to have a more full conversation about where she stands," said Jim Margolis, a veteran Boxer consultant.
In gaming out their prospects for November, both parties cast an eye on 1994, the last big Republican swell, and the 2006 election, when Democrats won nationwide.
The 1994 election was the last sweeping victory for Republicans in California. Operating under more loosely drawn district lines, Republicans took control of the Assembly for the first time since the 1960s and made inroads in the state Senate and congressional delegations. Led by Gov. Pete Wilson's landslide reelection, they carried five of seven statewide offices.
"There was a sense then, like now, that we are in a horrible recession and jobs and the economy were first and foremost in the minds of voters," said Beth Miller, who worked for Wilson that year and now is a senior advisor to Fiorina. "The magnitude of the voter dissatisfaction is more intense this year than in 1994."
Still, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein survived an expensive challenge by Republican Michael Huffington that year after she successfully questioned the tens of millions he put into the race and other personal and political baggage — a template for the Democrats this year.