Californians bucked the national Republican trend tonight and re-elected Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer to a fourth term. Based on early returns and media exit polls, Boxer led her Republican opponent Carly Fiorina, racking up a large margin in Northern California. Boxer’s seat was considered a
“must win” for the Democrats to keep a majority in the Senate, and her apparent victory now assures Democratic control regardless of the outcome in other close Western state races.
Nonpartisan polls have shown Boxer up by as much as 10 points in the days leading up to the election, but she was taking no chances as she rallied voters at Oakland’s Jack London Square yesterday.
“You are sending me back to fight for the middle class, to fight for jobs, to stand up against the special interests,” Boxer said. “My opponent wanted to create jobs in China, but I want to create jobs in Concord, Chula Vista and Chino.”
Republicans are expecting to take control of the House of Representatives and pick up seats in the Senate, which would force President Barack Obama to preside over a divided government in 2011. For Democrats, even prospects of a slimmer majority in the Senate would represent something of a consolation prize on a night where Republicans are expected to win big victories in governors’ races as well .
“There’s some that say it’s better if Obama can blame a Republican Congress for failure to get things done, and that saving the Senate won’t help you much,” UC Berkeley political science professor Rob van Houweling said. “But Obama is already having tremendous problems with appointments, and a new Republican majority in the Senate would make it even harder.”
Republican candidates identifying with the party’s more conservative Tea Party wing are leading in a number of Senate races, including in Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania—states Obama won in 2008. Boxer’s opponent, Republican Carly Fiorina, has courted Tea Party support, but appears headed for defeat.
Severe recession and economic dislocation are dragging on Democratic candidates across the country. Voters have confronted a national unemployment rate of more than 9 percent for most of the Obama administration, including a 9.6 percent unemployment rate on Election Day. If Boxer wins, she’d overcome the electoral handicap of California’s 12.4 percent jobless rate.
While the West Coast economy suffers from many of the same problems as the rest of the country, Boxer is capitalizing on other issues. she chairs the Senate committee overseeing the environment, an issue that resonates strongly with California voters. In addition, Boxer’s opponent Fiorina has expressed pro-life views in a state where more than 70 percent of voters support abortion rights, according to the most recent Field Poll. Fiorina has also had to defend her record as the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard at a time when voters hold big business in low esteem.
The president’s party often loses Senate seats during a midterm election (1998 and 2002 were recent exceptions), but severe economic dislocation will likely exacerbate Democratic losses in this election. Critics of the Democratic campaign strategy have suggested that Obama could have created a greater economic stimulus package in 2009, but Berkeley political science professor Eric Schickler said fundamental weaknesses in the economy were almost inevitably going to affect Democrats’ electoral fortunes.
“Maybe with a bigger stimulus you would have ended up with 9.1 percent unemployment instead of 9.6 percent, but all people would see is the 9.1 percent unemployment rate anyway,” Schickler said. “Financial recoveries are slow, so some losses for the majority party are already baked into the cake.”