Surprise in CA: Late entry in GOP Senate primary takes the lead

Over the last few months, I’ve interviewed the two heretofore leading candidates for the Republican nomination to challenge Barbara Boxer for her Senate seat, Chuck DeVore and Carly Fiorina.  Both candidates have sounded similar themes, both have emphasized their conservative credentials, and both have claimed that they can beat Boxer in November.  However, both of them finished behind former Congressman Tom Campbell in the latest Field Poll, not just against each other but also against Boxer:

Former Congressman Tom Campbell, who only last week switched his political sights from the governor’s race to the U.S. Senate, has become the front runner in the California GOP Senate primary.

In a survey completed between January 5 and 17, The Field Poll finds Campbell the choice of 30% of likely GOP primary election voters, businesswoman Carly Fiorina receives 25%, while Assemblyman Chuck DeVore trails at 6%. About four in ten (39%) of GOP primary voters are undecided. …

When paired against each of the GOP candidates in general election match-ups, Boxer leads Campbell by ten points (48% to 38%), Fiorina by fifteen points (50% to 35%) and DeVore by seventeen points (51% to 34%).

Interestingly, Boxer gets less than a majority against Campbell, indicating perhaps more opportunity — at least at this very early stage — than with the other candidates.  Campbell only announced for this race on January 14th, at least officially, while the survey was conducted from the 5th to the 17th — all but three days with Campbell not officially declared.  That’s an impressive showing, especially since DeVore and Fiorina have been publicly battling for the last few months.

Campbell may have some trouble generating support amongst conservatives, at least outside of California.  He was known as a moderate while in the House, a pro-choice and pro-gay rights Republican, which made political sense in his mainly Democratic district.  Campbell has more firm ground on fiscal conservatism, which gives him some libertarian support.  He lost the 2000 Senate race to Dianne Feinstein (partly due to the Clinton impeachment), which both Fiorina and DeVore can argue shows him to be a weak choice to fight Boxer.    DeVore can fight Campbell on social policy, while Fiorina will certainly have access to more campaign cash, mostly her own if she chooses to use it.

In this survey of 958 likely voters by Field, one of the venerable California pollsters, Boxer ends up with a 48%/39% favorable rating, a very low number for an incumbent in any year, and especially in this one.  Boxer’s vulnerable, but she’s not dead in the water.  The question for Republicans is which of these candidates gives California the best improvement and still can get elected?  It’s a tough choice, but it’s better to have a wider selection in the primary, and thus far Republicans appear to like Campbell’s entry into the race.

Update: I received the following statement from the Fiorina campaign:

“We continue to be encouraged by the polling in this race showing that Carly is a strong candidate both in the primary and in the general election and also showing that voters are highly unsatisfied with Barbara Boxer’s continued support for bigger government and higher taxes. Tom Campbell is a career politician who has run for statewide office now three times so you would have expected that his high name ID would have come through more strongly in this poll, and, once voters learn that Tom has spent the last five years supporting increased government spending, higher taxes and now refuses to commit to not voting for more tax increases in the Senate we expect his numbers to fall fast, just like Martha Coakley’s did in Massachusetts.”– Deputy Campaign Manager for Communications Julie Soderlund

I wouldn’t call this poll bad news for Fiorina so much as it isn’t good news.  In fact, Campbell’s record could allow Fiorina to position herself as the more consistently conservative candidate, especially if DeVore can’t gain any more traction.  We’ll see what the DeVore campaign has to say.

Update: Bruce Kesler is not optimistic about California being another Massachusetts, and points to a much lower percentage of independent voters.  I’d call that an artificial condition imposed by a closed-primary system, but Bruce has a point.  Be sure to read his entire post.