To observers of the California Republican Senate primary, echoes of the 2008 Primary election are difficult to ignore, though they also offer perilous blinders. On the one hand, there is Tom Campbell, who may stand as this election’s John McCain: the conspicuously moderate establishmentarian who has done his best to keep himself as understated and dignified as possible, while being persistently dogged with charges of radicalism and apostasy in the face of his refusal to support Proposition 8, and his ambivalent stance on conventional Republican tax philosophy.
Then, there is Carly Fiorina, a candidate who seemingly represents an odd blend between Mitt Romney’s credentials and Mike Huckabee’s style, campaigning simultaneously on being a business-savvy outsider and on being capable of offering the most deliberately bemusing and arch-conservative ads of perhaps any election cycle. These two, like Romney and McCain before them, have trained their guns on each other, and are doing their best to destroy the other’s prospects.
Finally, standing in the middle, there is Chuck DeVore. The designation of “in the middle” is not to suggest that DeVore is moderate – indeed, it would be difficult to find a more conservative candidate – but rather to suggest that he represents an interesting middle ground between the stylistic and strategic choices of the Fiorina and Campbell campaigns, and also that both of his competitors are literally and figuratively shouting over his head, seeing as they have yet to view him as a credible threat (he currently trails both).
DeVore is an interesting, and in many ways, compelling figure. Ordinarily, a Republican’s Republican running in perhaps the bluest state of the union, with a squeaky clean arch-conservative record (at least from the GOP perspective) would be seen as a quixotic venture on par with the candidacies of Ron Paul and Mike Gravel. Yet, despite his distinctly conservative bona fides, DeVore has, with few exceptions, done a fairly good job of coordinating public perception to make himself appear at times to be the only sane man in the room.
This is partially due to DeVore’s strategy of avoiding video ads, under the assumption that the gubernatorial race will drown out any exposure for other candidates. Much as this avoidance costs DeVore the name recognition he could receive if he marketed himself more aggressively through multimedia, it is not necessarily a flaw in this race to be the candidate whose name nobody can put a face to. As anyone who knows anything about Carly Fiorina’s web ads will tell you, more video exposure isn’t necessarily a good thing, and as anyone who reads half the news stories about Tom Campbell will tell you, being known in hardcore GOP circles as “the guy who hates Israel, loves gays and wants to raise your taxes” is not exactly a winning strategy, even in the relatively moderate California GOP.
This is not to say that DeVore has been avoiding public posturing or image-building altogether. Far from it. He has rather employed a risky but so-far safe strategy of allowing himself to be defined by his opponents’ shortcomings. When Fiorina released the “Demon Sheep” ad, for instance, DeVore created a homage website promising to rid political discourse of Demon Sheep and invoking internet memes as an understated-but-harsh mockery of the Fiorina campaign’s eccentricities.
The recent “Boxer Blimp” ad has also granted DeVore the opportunity to do some branding in the political race, as he has labeled the ad the “HindenBoxer” and once more taken the opportunity to take pot shots at Fiorina. This strategy came to a head in his recent debate performance, wherein DeVore made the (GOP-specific) heart winning claim that “I have no questionable corporate history. I have no past association with anti-American radicals. I have no history of liberalism of any kind” while trumpeting his credentials as one of Ronald Reagan’s youngest ever appointees. The strategy certainly won some hearts, as RedState blogger Leon Wolf called DeVore the “the only candidate to emerge from this debate unscathed, and the only candidate to sound like a serious and credible threat to Barbara Boxer in November.”
And is he? DeVore’s strategy of appealing to his conservative base is probably wise in the short-term, but it’s not clear that it will win him as many hearts come the general election. Whatever the level of justified fury in the air over Obamacare, California is still California, the land where someone can curse Glenn Beck and get lauded for it.
This is not to disparage DeVore’s philosophy. It is simply to suggest that in the golden state, attempts to reconcile an image as the sanest candidate with another image as the most conservative candidate may not necessarily strike pay dirt.