Call her Senator…for now

Having just dealt the national Democratic party a solid blow with the election of Scott Brown, Republican candidates have great reason to feel sizable bits of triumphalism. The incursion of a conservative candidate (albeit a fairly moderate one) into one of the bluest states in the union is easy to read as a message that, to quote Ann Coulter, “no Democrat is safe.” In California especially, such a message could easily provide a great deal of moral support to the Republican candidates currently trying to oust figures of national prominence – especially the candidates currently vying to challenge Senator Barbara Boxer.

One such candidate has already begun to jump on the bandwagon. In a recent interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, former web tycoon Carly Fiornia did her best to draw parallels between the Coakley race and Boxer’s coming contest. “I see parallels in what voters are concerned about,” Fiornia repotedly said. “All the poll data here in California shows that Californians are most concerned about jobs, and they are most concerned about out of control government spending. And that’s true whether they are Democrats or independents or Republicans, and they are concerned about the direction health care reform is taking. And those issues are going to play in California just as they played in Massachusetts.”

Perhaps, however, one cannot be too hasty in extrapolating the end of liberal hegemony nationwide from the end of liberal hegemony in Massachusetts. In fact, such a political fallacy of composition risks precisely the sort of humiliation recently suffered by Martha Coakley, for with the excessive sense of inevitability comes complacency, and that can only hurt potential challengers, as well as entrenched figures. To be sure, there are parallels between the defeat of Martha Coakley and the potential defeat of Barbara Boxer, and potential GOP challengers to Boxer would be wise to exploit them, but there are a number of factors currently standing in the way of a Scott Brown-esque challenge in California which present a far more substantial challenge than they did in Massachusetts. 

To begin with, Boxer enjoys the advantage of incumbency. Unlike Coakley, who was effectively starting with little name recognition beyond her actions as Attorney General, Boxer has a history of crushing GOP challengers. Her opponent in 2004 netted a mediocre 42% of the vote, marking a 16 point blowout in a year which otherwise saw massive Republican gains in both Houses of Congress. Granted, this year most challengers are more viable than their unfortunate predecessor, but the power of Boxer’s political clout cannot be underestimated, and nor should it be.

Second, Boxer starts from a position of much greater strength than Coakley relative to the enthusiasm/political savvy of her base. Unlike Coakley, who had to rely largely on retired suburban liberals/blue collar union members/college professors (most of whom are neither fabulously wealthy nor particularly inclined towards mainstream political activism), Boxer enjoys the advantage of a highly enthused and politically very well-connected voting bloc already set to be in her corner – namely, Hollywood. Moreover, unlike Coakley, who could only rely on one major population center (Boston) to deliver her blowout levels of support, Boxer can rely on most of California’s major population centers (with the possible exception of San Diego) to supply her with a quick voter fix.

None of this suggests that Boxer is unbeatable. After all, she currently enjoys only a 3-6 point advantage over her other GOP challengers, a far cry from Coakley’s previously ironclad 30 percent, but just as this lead can shrink, it can also grow, and with the Republican primary still to come, the knives have not truly begun to show themselves on either side of the aisle in this fight. If Republicans wish to take Boxer’s seat, they will need to be ready to fight hard, long and without reprieve, rather than assuming that voter discontent will carry the day for them. Otherwise, they, like every other person unfortunate enough to end up testifying before the Senate, will be forced to call Barbara Boxer ‘Senator’ for six more years.