Cal. Senate Race in the Shadows

Posted January 20, 2004 at 5:00pm

The California Republican Senate primary, now less than six weeks off, has finally begun to heat up. But with new Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and the Golden State’s dire fiscal woes continuing to dominate the state’s political headlines, it’s doubtful that many voters have noticed.

So the contest to determine who gets to take on two-term Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in November — which could pass without a single candidate running television ads — is less a test of the contestants’ relative merits than their ability to cut through the media fog just enough to get their voters to the polls.

“There’s nothing that sexy on the March 2 ballot to bring out Republicans,” said Tom Ross, a Sacramento-based GOP consultant who is not working with any of the Senate candidates.

At this stage, the most striking thing about the primary is how little money the four leading candidates appear to be raising. Boxer’s fundraising pace intensified in the last quarter, and she reported raising $8.8 million for the cycle and having more than $5 million in the bank at the end of 2003.

With most of the Republican campaigns yet to report their year-end fundraising figures, former Los Altos Hills Mayor Toni Casey (R) may wind up leading the money chase, having collected close to $830,000 in 2003. That doesn’t even cover a week of TV advertising in the Golden State.

“That puts a premium on organization,” said Sal Russo, a Republican consultant working for Senate candidate Howard Kaloogian, a former state Assemblyman who was a leader of the successful recall of ex-Gov. Gray Davis (D). “It’s going to be very much a base-oriented electorate that turns out for the primary.”

The nominal frontrunner in the contest, former California Secretary of State Bill Jones (R), isn’t terribly sexy himself. A 25-year veteran of state politics, Jones got into the primary on the Dec. 5, 2003, filing deadline, and his main appeal seems to be that he’s a political warhorse well-positioned for this battle.

Certainly the state’s Republican political establishment has rallied around him. Schwarzenegger announced last week that he was endorsing Jones. Former Republican Govs. George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson are the co-chairmen of his campaign. The only GOP members of the California House delegation to have endorsed so far — Reps. Mary Bono, Devin Nunes, Doug Ose and George Radanovich — have all sided with Jones.

“I think it would be extremely difficult for him to lose it,” predicted Allen Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which handicaps Golden State political races.

Still, the only recent poll on the race, released last week by Public Policy Institute of California, shows a wide-open field. Jones was preferred by 17 percent of Republicans, Kaloogian followed with 5 percent, Casey had 3 percent, and former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin had 2 percent. A whopping 70 percent of GOP voters polled were undecided.

Jones’ partisans portray their man as a time-tested statesman — a farmer and former legislative leader who can appeal to the widest range of voters in the general election and stand up to Boxer, a partisan brawler who has succeeded in part by portraying her opponents as far to the right of the California mainstream.

“I think we’re fighting to see who can beat Barbara Boxer the easiest,” said Valerie Walston, a Jones spokeswoman.

But while even his opponents will concede how solid and decent he is, Jones has been the victim of the heaviest attacks in the race so far.

Casey, a political moderate who boasts of her ties to Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs, calls Jones “the face of the old Republican Party. I’m the face of the new Republican Party.”

Kaloogian, the movement conservative in the race, calls Jones a squishy soft moderate who can’t whip up true believers. “Boxer is a street fighter,” he said, while Jones “is going to fight by Marquis of Queensbury rules.”

But it is Marin who has thrown the most punches. As she campaigns for holding the line on taxes, Marin notes that Jones supported a major tax increase in the state Legislature in 1991. As she touts her support for President Bush, she tells voters that Jones endorsed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2000 White House primary (Jones’ daughter, Andrea Jones, is now McCain’s press secretary).

And even as she reminds voters that she worked for the Wilson administration and is — like Schwarzenegger — an immigrant, Marin’s camp attempts to downplay Jones’ endorsements from the current and former governors, noting that his 2002 bid for governor fell flat.

“We believe Jones has a mushy message, which is ‘vote for me, I’ve been here the longest,’” said Kevin Spillane, a Marin consultant. “Being the Bob Dole of California isn’t a very compelling message for the voters of California.”

Marin, who moved to Los Angeles from Mexico City as a teenager and has a fairy tale history, has proven to be one of the enigmas of the cycle. Thought by many Republican operatives in California and Washington, D.C., to possess enormous political potential as a moderate, pro-abortion-rights Latina with three young children, Marin has been unable so far to catch fire — and time is running out.

President Bush’s neutrality represents a victory of sorts for Jones, given the potential for lingering resentments over his McCain endorsement.

Seeking to neutralize Wilson’s endorsement of Jones, Marin released a statement pointing out her differences with her former boss on the hot-button issue of immigration. But even Marin’s attempts to capitalize on ethnic pride in the primary may be falling short.

“Most of the Latinos in California are Democratic,” said Adela de la Torre, director of the Chicano Studies Program at the University of California at Davis. “I don’t think she’s energizing anyone.”

Nevertheless, Marin, like all of her primary foes, continues to peddle the argument that she is best equipped to take on Boxer — and on paper, she may be. Either way, the immigration issue could be key to the Republican primary outcome.

While Marin has embraced most aspects of Bush’s immigration reform proposal, Kaloogian has been the most vocal critic, and has attempted to mobilize support for his candidacy by trumpeting his opposition on conservative talk radio shows and Web sites — an organizing tool he used to great effect during the Davis recall. Casey, too, has expressed reservations about the plan. Walston, on the other hand, cautiously calls it “a good framework for discussion,” but says Jones will not take a position on it because “he seldom if ever comments on plans that are not yet written out in bill form.”

Just as Schwarzenegger’s political ascent and fledgling administration have eclipsed all talk of the Senate race, the governor’s endorsement of Jones is as widely talked about as the Senate contest itself. As he stumps for a bond measure on the state budget that is on the March 2 ballot and attempts to increase minority support for the GOP, Schwarzenegger’s decision to get involved in the Senate primary is puzzling to some political observers.

“Everyone will be talking about how Arnold gave the finger to the Latina … at a time when he needs all the friends he can get,” said Hoffenblum, the Target book publisher.

That muddle in the Republican ranks suits the Democrats just fine, said Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “And in the end, that’s going to accrue to Barbara Boxer’s benefit.”