A November ballot measure that would rescind California's landmark global warming bill until unemployment drops significantly has become an albatross for the Republican candidates for governor and U.S. Senate.
For months, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina have struggled with competing imperatives: appeasing members of their party who want to suspend the global warming bill while wooing environmentally-conscious independent voters who could carry them to victory in November.
Fiorina's uncertainty produced one of her most difficult moments during her first debate with Sen. Barbara Boxer last week, when she was repeatedly pressed for a position on Proposition 23 but declined to give one. She came out in support of the ballot measure two days later.
Whitman has yet to be pinned down.
Their reticence may also reflect divisions in the business community over the measure, which would suspend the global warming law until unemployment drops to 5.5% or lower for one year. Opposition to the November measure is particularly strong in the Silicon Valley, their home turf and an area they have mined for campaign contributions.
"It raises different strategic choices for both of the candidates," said Bruce Cain, a political science professor at UC Berkeley. "The fact that they're hesitating suggests they fear they could lose something there."
Two-thirds of California voters support the state's climate change law, which would require California to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels over a decade; 53% believe the state should act to reduce such emissions immediately rather than wait for the economy to improve, according to a July poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. Notably, more than 7 in 10 independent voters support the state's climate law.
Those voters tend to be fiscally conservative but socially and environmentally liberal, and are key to the Republicans' efforts to make up for Democrats' double-digit voter registration edge in California, said Mark Baldassare, president of the nonpartisan institute.
"Voters are looking for cues, especially for candidates they don't know very well," he said. "Therein lies the challenge for some of the Republican candidates. During the primary, they would have been saying, 'We're not in favor of this particular type of government regulation.' Now they're trying to reach into those 3 million-plus independent voters."
During the primary, Whitman and Fiorina called California's global warming law "a job killer" — framing it as another burdensome set of regulations that would ensnare California businesses. They routinely cited economic studies warning that the impact of the law was difficult to predict and that its implementation could cause jobs losses in the short term.
Several prominent business groups have come out in support of the ballot measure. Jack M. Stewart, president of the California Manufacturers & Technology Assn., said that in the midst of a recession "the rest of the world has taken a pass on global warming legislation. … It's too big of a risk to put this new regulatory burden on the economy."
But the California Chamber of Commerce has said it will remain neutral, and the Bay Area Council and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group both oppose Proposition 23.
Carl Guardino, president and chief executive of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, which is helping to fund the campaign against the ballot measure, said the region vigorously opposes it because the renewable energy sector has been a driving force in creating jobs over the last 15 years.
"Anyone who claims [California's global warming law] is a job killer is inaccurate at best, or is being persuaded by or paid by two Texas-based oil companies trying to destroy both the economy and environment of California," said Guardino, referring to Valero Energy Corp. and Tesoro Corp., which have largely bankrolled Proposition 23.
Whitman has said she is leaning against Proposition 23 because she believes her counterproposal for a one-year moratorium on the global warming bill is "smart and green." Her preferred option already exists under the bill, whose 2006 passage was championed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The former EBay chief said she has weighed competing views — from venture capitalists who believe the delay of the law would stifle the growth of California's green economy, to truckers, manufacturers and farmers who believe the law would put them at a competitive disadvantage.
"You will not make everyone happy no matter which way you come down on this," she said in an interview last weekend.
Fiorina's refusal to take a position during last week's Senate debate prompted the moderator to cut her off while she danced around the issue: "Yes or no? Just answer, do you support it?" he asked.