US & World

Senator Barbara Boxer could face tough re-election fight

Senator Barbara Boxer speaks at a fundraiser for herself and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee May 25, 2010 at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco.
Senator Barbara Boxer speaks at a fundraiser for herself and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee May 25, 2010 at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

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Democrat Barbara Boxer is asking California voters to send her back to Capitol Hill for a fourth term in the U.S. Senate.

This November, she’ll face the winner of the Republican primary. With Tom Campbell pulling his TV ads and Chuck DeVore struggling for campaign money, former Hewlett-Packard boss Carly Fiorina looks like she’ll be the GOP nominee.

Boxer hasn’t been tested in a Senate race in years – but that could change this time.

Conventional wisdom in Washington was that Democrat Barbara Boxer was a shoe-in for re-election. She won her first race for the U.S. Senate by 5 percentage points, her second by 10, and her most recent run in 2004 by a whopping 20 percentage points.

But then Scott Brown defeated a Democrat in the blue state of Massachusetts. Suddenly every Democratic seat in the country seemed up for grabs including, says pollster Scott Rasmussen, Barbara Boxer’s. "Let me put it this way: if Senator Boxer is defeated, it is going to be an absolutely horrific night for Democrats."

Senator Barbara Boxer says you "never, ever, ever take an election for granted."

Boxer says when she lost her first race for public office 38 years ago, she learned a lesson: don’t assume voters know what you stand for. "I have a big state and millions of people who have a lot on their minds other than this race, so they don’t know everything I’m fighting for." She says campaigns are about "telling people what have you done for them and more importantly, what you’re going to do for them."

Republicans say she’s done enough. Boxer voted for the health care bill and the economic stimulus package. Amber Marchand from the Republican National Senate Committee says that could come back and bite her. "In a year when voters in the states are truly tired of Washington, and they’re tired of the policies that have gotten us to this point, the status quo, I think that we’ll see in states even like California that are traditionally blue, this might be a very unique pickup opportunity for Republicans."

But it could depend on the kind of Republican Boxer faces. UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain says Californians as a whole prefer moderates – and a moderate Republican might beat Boxer. "When it looked like Carly Fiorina might run as a moderate," he says, "it looked like a really tough matchup."

But Cain says in an effort to win the Republican primary, Fiorina – the former Hewlett-Packard boss – has tacked to the right. It may work – the latest USC/LA Times poll shows the conservative Fiorina with a solid lead over the moderate Tom Campbell. But the poll also says Campbell the moderate could fare better against Boxer than Fiorina the conservative.

UC Berkeley’s Bruce Cain says no matter whom she faces, Boxer’s challenge in the fall is to win over moderates and get a big turnout of liberals. "There’s a lot of frustration on the left," he says, "with the Obama conception of how government is run. That is, you compromise, you’re pragmatic, you try to cut deals with the other side, you water things down. To the party activists, she’s out there articulating what the Democratic faithful want to hear."

Boxer made her pitch to the Democratic faithful at the state party convention in April. She hit hard on a topic voters of both parties are concerned about – the economy. She promised the crowd that she'd "continue working every day to put Californians back to work job by job by job."

Pundits say if California’s unemployment rate is still above 12 percent in November, voter discontent will likely be aimed directly at incumbents – like Barbara Boxer.