||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
Boxer Looks Stronger In California Senate Race
By Stuart Rothenberg
The exit of San Diego Mayor Susan Golding from the California Republican Senate race didn't come as a complete surprise. The GOP moderate suffered from staff turnover, fund-raising problems and criticism back home, and rumors of her withdrawal had been circulating for weeks, even months, in Republican circles.
But Golding's decision only reinforces the conventional wisdom that none of the GOP candidates is taking the state by storm, and that incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer (D), who looked vulnerable two years ago, suddenly looks more formidable.
The Republican field currently includes three candidates: state Treas. Matt Fong, businessman Darryl Issa, and Rep. Frank Riggs (R-CA 1)
Riggs, the most recent entry into the race, comes from the most northern part of the state and would need to raise millions just to get known in the populous Los Angeles and San Diego media markets. A former cop, he lost one re-election bid before regaining his seat in 1994. Since the congressman just jumped into the contest, it's hard to assess his potential, though he doesn't have the money or base to make him a formidable candidate yet. He has much to prove before the June 2 primary.
Fong has changed media consultants and still has trouble explaining his
positions on abortion and affirmative action in less than five minutes, and he is not an exciting personality. But he has run statewide before, comes from an established political family, and has a fund-raising and voter base in the Asian-American community.
Fong's reputation as a moderate has given an opening to Issa, a wealthy
businessman who has put together an elaborate campaign that includes his own "field team" spread across the state. Issa has already run radio and television ads, and he is prepared to spend millions of his own dollars in the primary. But not surprisingly, he does not yet sound as if he has an in-depth knowledge of most issues, and his "take charge" approach makes him seem impatient and cocky.
Most insiders seem to believe that Issa's financial advantage and conservative message (on both economic and social issues) give him an edge in the primary even though he started far behind Fong, though they certainly don't discount the state treasurer. They also doubt that Issa can beat Boxer in November.
Golding's exit has many Republicans wondering whether yet another candidate will enter the race. But the two House members best able to put together a Senate race, David Dreier and Chris Cox, apparently are not interested, and other Republicans who flirted with the race in the past have by now made other arrangements.
The most interesting rumor which continues to circulate in some GOP circles in California is that Gov. Pete Wilson (R), who can't run for re-election again this year, will jump into the Senate race. Wilson served in the Senate but gave up his seat to run for governor in 1990. His poll numbers are mixed, but California observers have learned not to underestimate his ability to come back from near political oblivion or to overcome favored opponents. And if there is any job Wilson would really want, it is president.
Meanwhile, Boxer raises money and continues to position herself as a fighter. Her poll numbers are hardly intimidating -- her personal ratings in a November Field Poll stood at 44 percent favorable/36 percent unfavorable, and she held unimpressive leads of 43-38 percent over Fong and 48-31 percent over Issa -- but she will not have a primary and will benefit from the public's overall mood of satisfaction.
Sonny Bono's replacement
Representative Sonny Bono's death means another special election in California's 44th C.D., but unlike many recent specials, the incumbent party looks to have a comfortable advantage. The district, which includes much of Riverside County, including Palm Springs, leans Republican (Bill Clinton won it by four percentage points in 1992 but Bob Dole carried it narrowly in 1996), and the circumstances of the special election are only likely to exaggerate the GOP's advantage.
While a number of Republican officeholders were ready to run for the seat, all of them have given way to Mary Bono, widow of the late congressman. Bono has no political experience, though she did campaign some with her husband. But she displayed an appealing personality on his first television interview (with CNN's Larry King): straightforward, down-to-earth and articulate. Her looks and smile won't hurt her either.
Mary Bono told King that if she runs it will be to try to finish what her late husband started, a good message even if the voters of the 44th C.D. probably had little idea about what issues, if any, the congressman was pushing. Now, after a few weeks of media adulation, Sonny Bono sounds like a political heavyweight who had influence on Capitol Hill, and his widow can in all likelihood win the vacant seat as long as she makes no major mistakes.
So far, the only Democrat to enter the race is Ralph Waite, an actor who
appeared in the television program "The Waltons," and the Democratic nominee for Congress in 1990. Waite drew almost 45 percent of the vote against incumbent Republican Al McCandless, but he'll find it harder to run against Mary Bono and the sympathy that she'll get following Sonny's tragic death.
The Republicans should retain the seat in the special election, which is
scheduled for April 7. There will be a June 2 runoff if no candidate gets over 50 percent of the total votes cast.