Bet on California's GOP Amazons

In spite of their rousing Silicon Valley credentials, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina are emphatic outsiders—which makes their primary races the ones to watch Tuesday. Tunku Varadarajan rates their chances come November.

06.07.10 12:33 AM ET

Marxian analysis is predicated on the notions of thesis and antithesis, and looking at California’s politics as it currently stands—which is a fair reflection of the way it has stood for many depressing years—we encounter an enticing, even mouthwatering, prospect of Marxian combustion. In the “blue” corner, representing “thesis,” we have the three most powerful figures in the state, Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, and Nancy Pelosi, three women who all live within an hour of each other. And in the “red” corner, representing “antithesis,” we have two more women, Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, who, in spite of their rousing Silicon Valley credentials, are emphatic outsiders. How wonderful, and how feisty, that California should be home to all these Amazons—yet another way in which this once great state has come to resemble Greece (although it is the ancient Greeks that we, here, invoke).

On Tuesday, the state holds its primaries, and the most eye-catching parts of this political exercise are the contests for the Republican Party’s nominees for Senate and Sacramento. In the former tussle, it looks almost certain that Fiorina will win the right to take on Boxer in November; in the latter, Whitman seems likely to win the right to grapple with that wily and protean old dude, Jerry Brown, for the job that Arnold Schwarzenegger has mangled and misperformed so spectacularly for the last seven years.

My money is on Crusading Carly to oust the jejune and pointless Barbara Boxer. As for the governor’s race, Meg Whitman will spend whatever it takes. Old Jerry is running a cheapskate campaign.

Without getting into the weeds of Californian politics, which, as weeds go, are more unattractive than most, it would serve us well to look at the prospective Boxer-Fiorina/Brown-Whitman matchups and contemplate some basic historical truths. First, it is useful to remember that California ceased to be a truly Republican state when the Oakland Tribune’s political dominance was overtaken by the Los Angeles Times in the mid-1950s. Earl Warren, a liberal Republican governor elected with Tribune backing, became more and more progressive as he aged. Richard Nixon, mostly self-interested, further divided the party, and the Democrats, being congenitally more unified, gradually took over the legislature through astute gerrymandering.

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In the opinion of most, there are three species of Republicans in California: (a) the old liberal Warren wing, often assailed as Republicans in Name Only, or RINOs; (b) the conservative wing, often too conservative for this conservatively challenged state; and (c) the “new hope” wing, to which belong the two rich ladies, Fiorina (H-P) and Whitman (eBay). So in the California GOP you have an aerodynamic nightmare, a three-winged bird. And if you are Republican, you hope it can fly.

Both present senators are San Francisco Jewish gals. Of the two, Feinstein has more heft and clout. Boxer can be beaten, and in a year like this, money can’t save her if she can’t otherwise save herself. A Fiorina win in the GOP primary would make it a woman vs. woman race and that’s always good theater, invigorating for the body politic; and tellingly, Fiorina has focused her campaign fire largely on Boxer, and much less so on Tom Campbell and Chuck DeVore, her Republican opponents: Witness her hilariously over the top, yet undeniably effective, “HindenBoxer” attack on Boxer. (Ignore, if you can, the embarrassing grammar of the introduction, in which the alarmist voiceover states, in reference to a Boxer scourge, that “No one knows from whence it came…”)

Benjamin Sarlin: Will Anti-Incumbent Revolt Claim Blanche Lincoln?Whitman is a hoot and if her campaign is any indication, she will be one of the most entertaining governors California has ever had—maybe another Chris Christie. She is capable of making herself into a true celebrity, and in a state as large and diverse as California, celebrity status is invaluable. Jerry Brown is still, first and foremost, a Jesuit. He spent eight years as mayor of Oakland, leaving only three years ago, and what has Oakland got to show for it? It is permanently rooted in the top five for murder capital of the U.S. Brown is 70-plus; California needs someone much more dynamic, an indefatigable bully who can stand up to the contemptible state legislature, maybe keeping it in nonstop session for a few hundred hours at a time, with cots and portable urinals.

Of the two Republican Amazons—Carly and Meg—Meg is the one with a task more uphill. Brown will take some beating: Few Californians under 45 have a direct political memory of his last, appalling time as governor. And after Arnold’s failure to be effective, or even coherent, it is conceivable that many Californians will see a danger in sending yet another novice (Whitman) to Sacramento. Boxer, a cipher who has won thus far by having political pygmies for opponents, is more threatened than Brown, who may be a bit of nut but is a politician with an undeniable, if tawdry, brilliance. He has watched with the full-bellied satisfaction of an old lion as the Republicans—Whitman and her primary opponent, Steve Poizner—have torn each other apart. They are doing his work for him.

Brown will be spectacularly outspent by the billionaire Whitman, but he will have at his back the mobilized legions of the public sector and the liberal interest groups. He does not have to spend multimillions to gain name recognition. Besides which, there are the regional factors: Both Whitman and Fiorina are Bay Areans. They will lose their home districts. They do not have crossover appeal to Latino moderates and Southern California suburbanites in the way Arnold did. Arnold was intellectually mediocre, but he did have a great story and was from L.A., where most of the voters are.

The possibly insurmountable problem for the GOP, as my friend Joel Kotkin tells me, is demographics. Simply put, whites are leaving; there were 500,000 fewer in 2008 in California than in 2000. The Latino vote is now at 20 percent, and they will have paid heed to the legislative antics of the GOP in Arizona. Add African Americans, and much of the Asian tally, and any Democrat starts with something close to 30 percent of the vote. This is not, on the whole, good for Republicans.

That said, the probable Senate race (Boxer vs. Fiorina) will be bloody. Ever since Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts, the GOP has been girding its loins for this epic. Boxer is no Martha Coakley, but she’s never faced a fight of this magnitude. She’s far from popular, even among her own party, and the adage in California is, I’m told, that if you want something done you seek out Sen. Feinstein.

So there we have it: My money is on Crusading Carly to oust the jejune and pointless Barbara Boxer. As for the governor’s race, Whitman will spend whatever it takes. Old Jerry is running a cheapskate campaign, and he has not stated clearly why he wants to be governor again. There’s a sense that he sees this as a last hurrah, and many voters may not find that a good enough reason to back him. His opponent, on the other hand, is brimming with purpose, and means to buy the votes she needs. It’s an age-old tussle, this, and a mighty riveting one: Money versus Moonbeam.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)