WASHINGTON — The prospect of unseating three-term Sen. Barbara Boxer has led business groups and social conservatives to invest heavily in California's U.S. Senate race over the past six weeks.
About $4 million has been spent on ads and election activities that help Republican challenger Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Co.
By comparison, outside groups have spent about $121,000 helping Boxer, who started the race with a huge cash advantage in her campaign account.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce leads the surge in spending, which is done independently of the Fiorina campaign. Others giving Fiorina an assist are anti-abortion groups such as National Right to Life and the Susan B. Anthony List Inc., as well as the National Organization for Marriage.
The spending comes just as Boxer seemed to put a little distance between herself and Fiorina in the polls. But an onslaught of television ads critical of Boxer could keep the race close leading up to Nov. 2.
Fiorina released two more television ads Tuesday in coordination with the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
"Just the mere idea that defeating a Barbara Boxer is even possible really is a game-changer," said Brian Brown, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage.
A Public Policy Institute of California poll released at the end of September showed Boxer with a slight lead, with support from 42 percent of likely voters compared to 35 percent for Fiorina. Nearly one in five voters was undecided in the race.
Brown's group was instrumental in California voters approving Proposition 8 in 2008. The state constitutional amendment defined marriage as an institution between a man and a woman.
His group has invested about $172,000 on television ads critical of Boxer airing on Spanish-language television stations in early October.
Opponents of abortion also are making their presence felt, despite polls showing that the majority of California voters support a woman's right to choose. A Field Poll released in July said seven in 10 voters favor making no change to the state's current abortion laws or making abortions easier to obtain.
The Susan B. Anthony List, which helps pro-life female candidates, has spent about $230,000 in California. It recently teamed with the National Organization for Marriage to help finance the television ads aimed at Latinos. National Right to Life has spent about $178,000, mostly on campaign fliers.
An organization called American Principles in Action has spent about $108,000, which helped finance a bus tour that made 43 stops in Latino neighborhoods throughout the state. The group, based in Washington, D.C., is opposed to abortion and gay-marriage, and supports immigration reform. It's financed by private donors.
Boxer is one of the Senate's staunchest supporters of abortion rights. So far, NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California have spent a little more than $100,000 on activities that would help Boxer — mostly through mailings and by making membership lists available to the Boxer campaign.
By far the most influential player in the race is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has spent about $3.2 million for television ads airing in several California markets.
The first round of ads attacked Boxer's record on job creation. A second round attacked her 28 years in Congress. The ads don't specifically call for the defeat or election of a particular candidate. Rather, they admonish Boxer for actions she has taken over the years.
Matt Kagan, a spokesman for the Boxer campaign, questioned the motive behind the chamber's advertising campaign.
"They're going after Senator Boxer because they know she puts California workers first," Kagan said. "She's fought to end tax breaks to companies that ship jobs overseas. We know how Carly Fiorina and her allies feel about shipping jobs overseas."
Boxer has consistently criticized Fiorina's tenure as head of HP from 1999 to 2005, when the Silicon Valley tech company laid off an estimated 30,000 workers and outsourced jobs to China, India and other countries.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce spokesman J.P. Fielder said the organization's support results from Fiorina's stand on a variety of issues important to American businesses.
"From the chamber's perspective, you see a distinctly pro-business candidate in Carly Fiorina," he said. "We feel like Carly Fiorina has outlined a substantive plan on how to create jobs in California."
Fiorina also is getting help from the National Republican Senatorial Committee. It's providing about $3 million that Fiorina's campaign is using to help pay for two 30-second television ads that began airing Tuesday. One is critical of Boxer, while the other is an effort to gain support from independents by telling voters she would oppose the Republican Party when it's wrong.
The spending from the outside groups does not include donations that are made specifically to a candidate's campaign. Boxer had nearly a 12-to-1 advantage in that category after the June primary. Both campaigns will release updated figures later this week.
Bruce Cain, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said he views the $4 million spent by the conservative groups as a way to help keep the race competitive. It also could be an incentive for Fiorina, whose personal wealth is estimated between $25.6 million and $115.9 million, to put more of her own money into the race. She contributed $5.5 million in the GOP primary but so far has not opened her personal checkbook in the general election.
Cain said Fiorina will need even more help to make a serious run at Boxer, given the number of high-priced media markets in California, the size of the state and the diversity of its population.
"I know in any other state, that's a huge buy and that's amazing. But in California, it's a toe-dip," Cain said. "It's making sure you haven't pulled out completely, that you haven't pulled the plug."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.