Midterm Exam

What California's Election Results Could Mean for the Nation

Californians aren't accustomed to thunder and lightning. Perhaps that's why they haven't detected the storm that is quietly brewing in their state.

The November forecast looks bleak for laborers, immigration-reform advocates, low-income individuals, environmentalists, nurses, teachers, students, and countless other blocs. Corresponding to what appears to be a nationwide trend, if polls are to be believed, Democratic candidates Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown are trailing their Republican opponents—despite having a 14-point edge in party registration.

According to the pundits, this year's predominant political narrative is that of insurgents ousting incumbents. But a theme that may be more relevant in the years to come is the stealthiness of these newcomers. Between running from the media (sometimes quite literally) to canceling planned debates to whitewashing their Web sites, conservatives are hoping their candidates will run out the clock before voters come to their senses.

Republican hopefuls Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina have much in common: Both are wealthy executives-turned-political candidates who say their corporate bona fides will mean more jobs for California, both want to dismantle "big government," and both are dead-set on winning at any cost. (Whitman, for example, has outspent Brown between 100 and 200 to 1, according to various estimates.) If they succeed, it could mean a new, albeit radically different, "Year of the Woman"—eighteen years after the one brought by Boxer's and Senator Dianne Feinstein's victories. That said, their campaigns strategies couldn't be more different: while Fiorina has avoided the spotlight, Whitman has practically bought it outright. Fiorina has made her conservative stances clear and congealed her right-wing support; Whitman has obfuscated her positions in an attempt to woo a large portion of California's 3 million independent voters.

Anyone familiar with the campaign led by former Hewlett-Packard CEO and Fox Business commentator Fiorina knows her top issue is to purportedly create jobs by cutting taxes for small businesses. She hopes voters don't discover her ardent support of globalization: In 2004, she infamously declared, "There is no job that is America's God-given right anymore."

The embodiment of corporate culture, Fiorina fired more than thirty thousand employees, and exported jobs—all while earning a $100 million salary—before being dismissed in 2005. Flaunting her business acumen, she said in a September 1 debate with Boxer that HP shareholders "benefitted from my time there"—not mentioning that the company's stock jumped when she was ousted.

Reminiscent of Sarah Palin—who has endorsed her—Carly Fiorina agreed to meet with Tea Partiers at an event closed to the press. In a largely liberal state like California, such hush-hush dalliances are working to Fiorina's advantage, lest more voters discover that she too is a proud member of the NRA, opposes the assault-weapons ban, has doubts about global warming, and wants more off-shore drilling and nuclear power. Maybe some voters saw Fiorina at the debate declaring her support for extending the Bush tax cuts and repealing the estate tax. Then again, fewer than 1 million people tuned in.

Fiorina isn't the only California candidate flying under the radar. To avoid being tagged with a "long track record in Washington," Boxer has downplayed—to her own disadvantage—the fact that one thousand pieces of her legislation have been enacted. Not until the debate did Boxer finally slip off the gloves, jabbing Fiorina's HP record and her opposition to education and tax-break bills. But then Boxer overreached the following week, clumsily suggesting that Fiorina may have allowed HP to skirt an embargo with Iran. The media scolded Boxer for the claim, which was perceived as an act of desperation amid the toughest fight of her career.

With all of Meg Whitman's TV ads and infomercials, it would be easy to assume that voters are familiar with her platform. Through August, the billionaire—who wants to end long-term welfare—had spent more than $119 million of her own money on her campaign. For that amount of cash, Los Angeles could have placed about two-thirds of its homeless population into supportive housing for an entire year [PDF].

Whitman—who loathes government so much that she didn't vote for three decades—has proposed eliminating forty thousand state jobs. Among the imperiled employees are nurses, whose unions have protested the idea. In a YouTube video that has since been yanked, a reporter asked Whitman which jobs she’d cut, and she couldn’t answer. What has been made clear by Whitman—whose Web site is remarkably free of policy specifics—is that she intends to transform state employee pensions into 401(k) plans and the State Legislature into a part-time institution.

It’s difficult to avoid the impression that when it comes to Latinos—18 percent of likely voters—Whitman is simply pandering. Her July op-ed for Spanish-language newspapers insisted that Brown "shares many of my positions on immigration." In October 2009, she called for "a fair program where people stand at the back of the line, they pay a fine, they do some things that would ultimately allow a path to legalization." She also said it's "simply not practical" to deport 12.5 million undocumented workers. Yet in early August, she contradicted herself by declaring, "I am not for a path to citizenship."

Given that a recent USC/Los Angeles Times poll [PDF] revealed that 67 percent of respondents—including many independents—said they support a path to legalization for undocumented workers, Whitman’s waffling isn’t surprising. Still, in light of her most recent statements, no one should expect immigration reform to advance if Whitman wins. Nor should they await progress on environmental policy, prison reform, and a host of other issues. Whitman has promised she'll veto all legislation that doesn't deal directly with jobs, the budget, education, or public safety.

While Whitman has blurred her stances despite ceaseless self-promotion, current California Attorney General Brown has taken the opposite approach: Preserving his resources until the very end and hoping his track record—as former governor (1975–83) and mayor of Oakland (1999–2007)—will sway voters who will recognize his name on the ballot. In a risky move, the dry-humored ex-seminarian Brown waited until September 6 to start advertising on TV. He's also counting on a big turnout from labor groups, which he addressed on Labor Day at an event at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

But he has made some missteps. After the Whitman campaign released a TV ad featuring an eighteen-year-old clip of Bill Clinton attacking Brown, the latter sniped at the former president at a campaign stop. Last Tuesday, Clinton endorsed Brown after receiving an apology from him. Brown has also drawn criticism for comparing Whitman's ad campaign to one by Joseph Goebbels, questionable uses of a state plane, and for having amassed a pension that will top more than $78,000 a year—if he is re-elected governor.

The implications of a Whitman victory extend far beyond California. While the media remains focused on the horse race, they’ve failed to notice that most state governors could be Republicans. That would have significant consequences for post-census redistricting, which is planned for next year. Likewise, Fiorina would add another vote the GOP’s efforts to stymie Democratic legislative initiatives—and could harm Obama's reelection chances.

If there is truth to the statement, "As California goes, so goes the nation," then Americans should keep their umbrellas close at hand, for a storm lies ahead.


Related: Extreme Makeover: Where Have All the Moderate Republicans Gone? by E. J. Dionne Jr.

About the Author

Kurt Orzeck is a Santa Monica-based writer/editor. He has appeared on NPR, and he has written for RollingStone.com, MTV, the California Catholic Conference, and dozens of other outlets.

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Further evidence, as if we didn't it, that the United States is already a corporate plutocracy.    

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