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Boxer Returns To Senate

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) attends a post election party November 2, 2010 in Hollywood, California.
Eric Thayer
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) attends a post election party November 2, 2010 in Hollywood, California.

Democrat Barbara Boxer has won a fourth term to the U.S. Senate, defeating Republican businesswoman Carly Fiorina.

November 2010 Election Results

Boxer, facing perhaps her toughest fight, pulled ahead in polls just before election day. Fiorina, a wealthy, conservative business executive who was hospitalized in the campaign's last week with an infection, sought to unseat one of the Senate's most liberal members.

In this year of backlash against incumbents, the outcome was anything but preordained.

For California Republicans and right-leaning independents, casting a vote in a statewide or presidential election is generally a quixotic act, a meaningless protest in a state that has voted for the Democratic presidential and senatorial candidates every year since 1992.

Statewide offices as well tend to be dominated by Democrats. And while there are about 7.5 million registered Republicans, there are nearly 17 million registered Democrats.

In her past three Senate runs, Barbara Boxer has defeated her opponent by 10 to 20 points every time. She has had fortunate timing. In 1998 she benefited from sharing a ballot with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gray Davis, who won by nearly 20 points, while in 2004 she got a boost from John Kerry backers. Her opponents have helped: 1992 GOP candidate Bruce Herschensohn was revealed a few days before a tight-fought election to have visited a strip club, while 2004 opponent Bill Jones never raised enough to even run a television ad. (Story continues below)

Credit: Andie Adams, Melody Karpinski, Kimberlee Kruesi, Christina Maggiora.

But don't mistake Boxer's electoral success for validation of her affability or political deftness. Even her ideological compatriots don't think she has those qualities. The Los Angeles Times endorsed Boxer but wrote of "an assertiveness that often is perceived as arrogance," and "hope[d] her fourth term will be marked by less bluster and more bipartisan achievements." The San Jose Mercury News also endorsed Boxer but conceded, "We wish Boxer were less strident. This trait has cost her support for some important legislation and has damaged her ability to provide leadership in the Senate." The San Francisco Chronicle refused to endorse either candidate this year, editorializing that Boxer was "an ineffective advocate for causes we generally support," adding that Boxer's "most famous moments on Capitol Hill have not been ones of legislative accomplishment, but of delivering partisan shots."

"Over half of Californians are unsatisfied with Barbara Boxer," said Jon Fleischman, a former executive director of the California GOP. A recent Fox News poll showed that 52 percent of Californians have an unfavorable view of Boxer.

But Fiorina's unfavorable ratings in a recent Field Poll were about the same, at 51 percent. And in recent weeks, Boxer has campaigned fiercely, running ads that slam Fiorina for her decisions to lay off 30,000 workers and outsource some jobs during her time as CEO of Hewlett Packard. Boxer has also worked to make the social issues more prominent in voters' minds, frequently touting her own abortion-rights absolutism in contrast to Fiorina's pro-life positions. A new Boxer ad reminds Californians that Sarah Palin endorsed Fiorina.

The attacks present a difficult challenge for Fiorina, a two-pronged assault on her message about job creation and her refusal to make social issues a pivotal part of the campaign. "Fiorina is unabashed about her belief in the sanctity of life, but she doesn't wear it on her sleeve, and she doesn't put in her campaign literature," says Fleischman.

But Boxer's strategy may backfire: This is not an election focused on abortion or gay marriage. "The people who care most passionately about preserving legal abortion are going to vote Democrat, no matter what," points out Claremont McKenna College political scientist John J. Pitney Jr. Fiorina may also be well positioned to counteract the attack ads. "She's a very confident person who inspires confidence in her ads," says Johnson, referring to the Fiorina commercials that feature the candidate directly addressing the audience about changing California. "That helps blunt some of the negative attacks."

According to an NRSC-commissioned Tarrance Group poll released last week that showed Fiorina and Boxer tied, the Republican still needs more support among independent voters. While Fiorina, at 47 percent, is leading by 13 points among independent voters, the Tarrance Group's Dave Sackett said "she needs to improve upon this and get her ballot strength among ticket-splitters up into the mid 50s."

Fiorina, who touted her willingness to buck the Republican Party if necessary in a recent ad, appears to be trying to appeal to Californians who still like President Obama and the Democratic party but are concerned about the country's direction. Such an attitude appears to represent a crucial segment of the California electorate: The Fox poll showed that 46 percent of likely California voters approved of the president, but 71 percent were angry or dissatisfied with how the government was working, while 67 percent thought that Obama's economic policies had hurt or made no difference in California's economy. In a state with the nation's third-highest unemployment rate, voters' decisions may ultimately depend on whom they trust to create jobs.

Voter turnout may favor Fiorina. "There are a lot of Democrats that are very disappointed in the performance of their own party," says Johnson, adding that while staunch Democrats won't vote Republican, they may not vote at all this year. Fiorina may also be helped by Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman's aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts.

But win or lose, Fiorina has disproved the conventional wisdom that no conservative candidate can be competitive in a statewide California race. She has focused on jobs and the economy, pushing spending cuts and the tax cuts that will help businesses thrive, but has maintained her conservative stances on abortion, immigration, and the environment.

The combination of high unemployment and an arrogant, out-of-touch incumbent has been enough to put the Golden State in play for Republicans. Whether it will be enough to carry Fiorina to victory will be a close call: Unlike the polls, Fiorina does not have much of a margin of error.