No Boxer Rebellion

The latest Field Poll shows U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer coasting toward re-election to a third term. She leads her Republican challenger, former California Secretary of State Bill Jones 48 to 32 percent.

The race will probably get closer, but it is hard to see how Jones can catch up as long as Boxer maintains the stranglehold on Democratic voters she has maintained since her first election in 1992. In each of her elections, she has dominated the Democratic electorate (including Jewish voters), run up big totals in Los Angeles County and the Bay Area, painted her Republican opponents as out-of-the-mainstream conservatives and won rather easily. Jones seems to be about to become the latest victim of the Boxer train.

Once buoyed by the 2003 recall and the election of GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republicans must feel that they are on the verge of missing yet another chance to knock Boxer out. There were reasons to think Boxer would have a particularly hard time this year. Last year, President Bush was quite popular in California. Schwarzenegger had taken over California politics and endorsed her opponent, Jones.

With greater Republican interest in statewide politics due to the recall, there might be a high turnout of Republican voters, just as there had been in October 2003. Most of all, the percentage of voters who thought Boxer should be re-elected hasn’t been over 50 percent in the Field Poll for more than year, a serious warning sign for an incumbent.

Yet here she is. Bush’s popularity is falling in California and Democrats are energized. The Senate race is moving into a zone of disinterest, overshadowed by the presidential election and statewide ballot measures.

The worst news for Jones has to be the low level of interest in the Senate race. According to the Field Poll, 9 percent of voters were following the Senate campaign very closely in August; now it is only 8 percent.

By contrast, historic numbers of U.S. voters are playing close attention to the presidential election. Without much media attention — the challenger’s oxygen against an incumbent — it may be hard for Jones to catch up.

Boxer may not be the sort of moderate candidate that, as a whole, California voters love, compared to, say, Sen. Dianne Feinstein. But she can raise tons of money, she is hugely energetic and she maintains her political base in the Democratic Party.

She is also surprisingly careful. In the 2003 recall, she distanced herself from the doomed Gray Davis by joining with Loretta Sanchez to float the idea of Feinstein running as a replacement candidate. She was rather judicious in what she said about Schwarzenegger, a man who keeps a close tally of friends and enemies.

Even as a liberal activist, Boxer stays below the radar and does not become a lightning rod for her political enemies. She is no Hillary Clinton, keeping the radical right up at night boiling with rage. She manages to be a liberal icon without stirring up a hornet’s nest.

Boxer’s biggest problem would not have been Jones, but Schwarzenegger. Had the governor thrown everything he had at Boxer, he might have disrupted her winning formula.

Fortunately for Boxer, the governor has other fish to fry. He is trying to block some gambling ballot measures and hoping to win some state legislative seats for his party.

He needs friends in Washington of both parties to win benefits for California and would be unlikely to expend a lot of energy trying to drive an incumbent senator out of office. Some even think that he has his eye on Feinstein’s Senate seat in 2006, should she step down.

If so, he would need to keep refining his bipartisan approach for a Republican in a Democratic state. His support among California Democrats has been dropping since he spoke at the Republican convention.

What is most surprising about Boxer’s impending re-election is that we no longer notice that California has two Jewish women senators. When they came on board together in 1992, this was a true phenomenon. Now there are 11 Jewish senators and numerous members of the House of Representatives, governors and even a vice presidential nominee in 2000. Some are Democrats, others are Republicans.

It is hard to imagine that a generation ago, Jews debated whether prominent Jewish officeholders would excite anti-Semitism. Now, political candidates brag about their long-lost Jewish relatives, Jews hold office in great numbers and the result has not been an upsurge of anti-Semitism.

While Jewish elected officials do not vote as a bloc, it is a sea change to have so many people in Washington, D.C., who directly understand the core issues of Jewish voters. And Boxer seems to show that with the right combination of moxie and luck, even a Jewish liberal can survive and thrive in high office.