"The sentiment is genuine, but it doesn't have an obvious outlet," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont-McKenna College.
Despite their claims to the contrary, the candidates seeking to become governor or senator are all political or corporate insiders. And in the 100 districts where legislative seats are up for grabs this year, experts expect nothing but sleeper contests.
"I see no sign that this anti-establishment thing is going to have an effect in any race," said Tony Quinn, editor of the California Target Book, which analyzes state and federal races. "I cannot think of a single incumbent in either party who is threatened in this primary for the Legislature."
Consider the lineup of candidates for senator: Carly Fiorina, corporate insider; Tom Campbell, former congressman; and Chuck DeVore, current assemblyman and former corporate executive.
And in the governor's race: Meg Whitman, another corporate insider; and Steve Poizner, businessman and state insurance commissioner.
"Everybody's claiming to be an outsider, and when everybody's an outsider, nobody is," Pitney said. "It's pretty evident they're not."
The state's Republicans appear to be in a particularly snarly mood as they prepare to nominate their top candidates.
"California today is ground zero for the anxiety and angst that most Americans have, not only about the direction of the country but the role the government plays in that," said Fernand Amandi, executive vice president of Bendixen & Amandi, a Florida-based public opinion research firm that does polling in California and elsewhere. "I've never seen such discontent articulated in one state, at really historic levels, in some of the numbers that are coming out of California. ... It's just a dark, hostile, angry environment."
California's woes have been well-documented in recent years: Faced with high unemployment, a multitude of home foreclosures and plunging property values, the state is grappling with a multibillion-dollar budget hole; and with voters reluctant to raise taxes, government services are getting severely cut. Earlier this month, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed eliminating the state's welfare program.
GOP voters sent a very loud message of discontent in a poll released by the Public Policy Institute of California last week: 76 percent said bad economic times are ahead, 81 percent disapproved of Congress, and 75 percent disapproved of President Barack Obama.
"The anti-establishment mood is huge," said Mark Baldassare, president and chief executive officer of the Public Policy Institute of California. "The real struggle that Republican voters are having is how to best send a message that they are extremely unhappy with the status quo. And whoever is able to figure out a way to convince the voters that they've got the way to send the message, they're going to be the ones who succeed."
The Field Poll found similar levels of Republican unrest earlier this year: In January, three-quarters of all GOP voters said the country was on the wrong track, and in March, 65 percent gave Schwarzenegger low marks while 86 percent said they disapprove of the Legislature. Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to say the country was headed in the right direction, but they were equally disapproving of the governor and Legislature.
Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, said that more than 60 percent of GOP voters now identify "a lot" or "some" with the Tea Party, which he said is "coalescing around a very anti-incumbent mood."
"The most sour of voters are the Tea Party activists," he said. "They have the bleakest outlook about the economy, about the direction of the country, about most of the elected officials."
Amandi said the "profound level" of discontent is showing up in every segment of the population: the wealthiest, the poorest, the upwardly mobile, the working class, and the highly- and lowly-educated. And he said Californians have suffered "a double whammy," with the national economic downturn and the state's budget crisis.
"Incumbents beware," he said. "That's the political takeaway. ... That's going to impact Republicans and Democrats alike. This is not about frustration with one party over another. It's frustration with the way government works — period. It's almost a perfect storm of negativity."
With less than two weeks remaining before the primary, candidates are trying to capitalize on voters' pessimism, making sure their campaign messages match the mood. But it's unclear who, if anyone, might benefit on Election Day.
"I think it's the big wild card right now," said DeVore. "It's really hard to tell how this lands."
In the Senate race, all of the candidates are playing down their political experience as they bid to take on Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in November.
"We're definitely the outsiders here," said Amy Thoma, a spokeswoman for Fiorina. "And she's the only candidate in this race who has created a job or met a payroll. And the fact of the matter is that Tom Campbell and Chuck DeVore are both career politicians."
And in the governor's race, Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for Whitman, said that Whitman is "the only outsider that's going to make a change to the failing status quo in this state."
Some political experts contend that the media is making too much of the anti-establishment and anti-incumbent themes this year. They predict that 2010 will be much like other election years, with incumbents winning most races.
Nathan Gonzalez, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said that the politically angry and frustrated mood is helping draw new candidates to the Republican Party, such as the Tea Party activists. But he noted that incumbents so far this year have won 124 of 127 primaries, a 98 percent winning rate.
He said that two races in California and Nevada bear watching for signs of anti-establishment unrest.
In California's 36th Congressional District, Democratic Rep. Jane Harman, a centrist Blue Dog now in her eighth term, faces a liberal challenger. And in nearby Nevada, a Tea Party candidate is taking on the Republican establishment choice for the right to challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in November.
With no incumbents running in the gubernatorial and Senate GOP primaries in California, Baldasarre that said no candidates have an obvious advantage in claiming to be the top outsider and that they'll all fight hard to "gain traction in this environment."
The candidates have been busy positioning themselves.
DeVore said Campbell comes across "kind of professorial and kind of an insider." And he said Fiorina is not the anti-establishment candidate because she was on the short list to become Arizona Sen. John McCain's running mate in 2008 and owns a fancy house in Washington's tony Georgetown neighborhood, hardly the marks of an outsider.
DeVore noted that he has served in the Legislature for only six years.
"That makes me professional?" he asked. He's banking on a win by relying on help from Tea Party voters.
Campbell said he's no insider because he's been out of elected office for 10 years. Of his 30-year post-doctorate career, Campbell said, he's spent 15 years in office and 15 in academics and the private sector.
"It is a tough time for somebody to run who has been in office 28 years, and that's Senator Boxer's difficulty," Campbell said. "People who are associated with the system which has brought us to this result are quite vulnerable. The issue is: Are you in office now? Are you part of the problem?"
While angry voters may have no outlet for their frustration in the primary election, Pitney said the anti-establishment mood could affect results in November, when more incumbents will be on the ballot.
"I think it will have some impact in the general election, where you will have an increased vote for non-incumbent candidates," he said. "At least people who want to throw the bums out will have a clearer choice."