With California beset by 12% unemployment and a $20 billion budget shortfall, the biggest question this election season might be not who will hold the not-so-Golden State's highest elected offices next year but who would want to.
The races for governor and U.S. Senator have pitted two Republican neophytes former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina against a duo of Democratic stalwarts. In the past 40 years, state attorney general Jerry Brown, who is battling Whitman to replace term-limited Arnold Schwarzenegger in the governor's mansion, has held or run for almost every political office imaginable. He served as California's secretary of state, chaired the state's Democratic Party, ran the city of Oakland as mayor and launched unsuccessful bids for the U.S. Senate and presidency. And that's to say nothing of the two terms he served as governor, from 1975 to 1983. Barbara Boxer, the three-term Senator whom Fiorina is hoping to unseat, spent six years on the Marin County Board of Supervisors and a decade in the House of Representatives before ascending to the upper chamber of Congress in 1993.
In a typical year, these matchups might not hold much suspense. California is traditionally Democratic Boxer trounced her Republican opponent by 20 points in 2004, and Schwarzenegger, a Republican who has taken some fairly non-conservative positions on issues like gay marriage and climate change, is leaving office with his approval ratings in the sub-basement. But both these races are razor-close. A recent poll conducted for TIME and CNN found Whitman and Brown in a statistical tie, while Boxer held a narrow 48%-to-44% lead over Fiorina, just outside the margin of error. That both the governor's mansion and a Democratically controlled Senate seat are up for grabs in Blue California is a sign of trouble for Democrats nationwide. Whitman's competitive performance, among others, has the GOP hoping to occupy as many as 30 governorships next year. And the precariousness of usually safe seats such as Boxer's, Russ Feingold's in Wisconsin and Patty Murray's in Washington has put control of the Senate within Republicans' reach.
Boxer's vulnerabilities aren't so different from those of other entrenched incumbents nationwide economic angst and growing mistrust in government have racked the electorate, and the junior Senator from California has seen her job approval fall into the low 40s over the last year. "People are looking for a reason to abandon Boxer," says Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State. Some of them are finding that reason in Fiorina, who has been relentless in her critique of Democrats' record on the economy, rattling off grim statistic after grim statistic in a recent debate. But after emerging from a competitive primary that pushed candidates to the right, the Republican hasn't reached far beyond her base. "Fiorina has not crawled to the center," Gerston says, and the TIME survey showed her trailing Boxer among younger voters, women and independents.
Brown faces different challenges. Despite, or perhaps because of, his wealth of political experience, the Democrat's campaign has at times seemed stuck in the last century. When President Obama sent out a much anticipated fundraising pitch to Brown supporters via e-mail, the influx of Internet traffic brought down the candidate's website. After making an offhand comment to a reporter comparing Whitman to infamous Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, Brown expressed surprise that the informal aside, spoken far from any cameras, had spread across the Internet and through mainstream-media outlets like wildfire. Then, baited by a Whitman ad using footage from Brown's bitter 1992 presidential primary against Bill Clinton, the Democrat was videotaped on the trail bad-mouthing the former President, prompting a flurry of less-than-flattering coverage before the obligatory public mea culpa. (Clinton has since endorsed Brown and is scheduled to campaign for him in mid-October.)
But more than a lack of web savvy or his colorful tongue, Brown's biggest obstacle is his checkbook. Campaigns in California, the nation's most populous state, full of large media markets, are notoriously expensive, and Whitman has had no reservations about spending the great wealth she carried out of Silicon Valley. She has already given $119 million to her own campaign, making her the single largest self-donor among statewide candidates in U.S. history, and is on pace to spend tens of millions more by Election Day. In the past year, Whitman has contracted top-tier political talent to staff her campaign and has become ubiquitous on California radio stations, TV outlets and billboards, with dozens of advertisements in English and Spanish. She even distributed copies of a 48-page glossy magazine detailing her proposals.
Democrats have to hope her profligate spending turns off some voters. While Whitman has been busy unleashing her fortune, Brown has hardly spent a dime (which, in California speak, is somewhere in the range of $600,000). He largely sat on his $20 million war chest this summer, relying on a combination of free media afforded to him through his active role as attorney general and independent expenditure advertising from a coalition of labor unions and Democratic groups. The gambit was intended to save enough money for Whitman's inevitable deluge in the final months of the campaign. But the window of opportunity is a small one. Brown didn't release his first television ad until early September, just four weeks before mail voting was to begin.
Despite their different challenges, Whitman, Brown, Fiorina and Boxer all have one thing in common: they talk ceaselessly of résumés and records. As the Republicans tell it, this election is about business brainpower vs. business as usual in politics. In one ad, Whitman depicts herself as "one of America's best CEOs," ready to bring corporate efficiency to Sacramento, while the next dubs Brown's career "a lifetime in politics, a legacy of failure." Fiorina, for her part, is always eager to mention how she "met a payroll" in the business world while her opponent spent "28 long years in Washington." Democrats paint their candidates as dedicated public servants fending off cutthroat corporatists. Brown's campaign boasts about "knowledge and know-how" born of years in public service; his allies mock "Wall Street Whitman" for her brief tenure on the board of Goldman Sachs. Boxer is quick to bring up her record on the environment and abortion rights, and even quicker to mention Fiorina's rocky tenure at HP.
So why is it that in a state where fiscal ruin and joblessness darken the horizon, the candidates have been so hung up on the past? "Everybody is afraid of the future," Gerston says. "They all know there's nothing left to be done but huge sacrifices." In the end, the hard-fought victory for whoever will win in November may be the easiest part.