Tom Campbell brings an impressive resume' to the race for U.S. Senate. He's a past dean of UC Berkeley's business school and a former Stanford Law School professor. He's served in Congress and in the California state Senate, and directed the California Department of Finance.
But being a free thinker, Campbell occasionally strays from Republican orthodoxy, including the party's opposition to gay marriage. That stance has brought him under attack from the conservative National Organization for Marriage, a New Jersey group that reached into California earlier this month and aired a television ad aimed at derailing Campbell's bid for office.
Established in 2007 to combat same-sex marriage, NOM is headed by Brian Brown and Maggie Gallagher. The two were among the most influential backers of Proposition 8, the 2008 initiative that reversed the California Supreme Court decision permitting same-sex marriage, and of a 2009 ballot measure in Maine that overturned same-sex marriage in that state.
"It's important that the Republican Party maintain its platform and core beliefs," Brown said, explaining his opposition to Campbell. "Marriage is one of the most critical of these … . We do not want a candidate elected, especially as a Republican, who wants to redefine marriage."
If you blinked, you might have missed the National Organization for Marriage's ad attacking Campbell. The buy was tiny by California standards – $275,000. But it was the start of what could be a wave of ads in California's U.S. Senate campaign by political entities that are under no obligation to disclose the source of their money. And it again raises questions about what it means to be a Republican, and whether the "big tent" has room for social moderates.
Like many political ads, this one is fairly loose with its adherence to the facts. The ad describes Campbell and incumbent Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer as "two peas in a pod," claiming they support tax increases and same-sex marriage.
More directly, the attack suggests that Campbell faces the prospect that he will be "Scozzafavaed." It's a little like being Borked, only by conservatives.
The term came into the lexicon when Dierdre "Dede" Scozzafava, a New York Republican assemblywoman, ran for a congressional seat in a special election last year, and, like Campbell, acknowledged that she supports same-sex marriage.
She ended up dropping her candidacy when she was, well, Scozzafavaed by conservatives including Sarah Palin and the National Organization for Marriage.
Scozzafava threw her support to the Democrat, Bill Owens, who won the seat. What made the Democratic win so stunning was that the seat had been in Republican hands – albeit those of a moderate – since 1873.
In California, Campbell is locked in a tight race against Carly Fiorina, the former chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard. Polls show both would be competitive against Boxer, particularly in a year when angry voters are in a mood to throw out incumbents.
A Field Poll earlier this month showed Campbell leading Fiorina by six points in the GOP primary. A poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed Fiorina with a one-point lead. Fiorina and a third Republican candidate, Assemblyman Chuch DeVore, share opposition to gay marriage.
Will the National Organization for Marriage's involvement move the California electorate in the same way that it helped shape the New York congressional race? It remains to be seen. But Brown and Gallagher are willing to take credit for Fiorina's upward trend in the polls.
Gallagher, who is also an officer in the Virginia-based Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, cited that PPIC poll and proclaimed in a blog: "Bottom line: I think Tom Campbell is about to find out, as Dede Scozzafava did, that it is not a good idea to be for gay marriage if you are Republican."
It will be instructive to see how Republicans in California respond to this clarion call. This state has deep problems. Unemployment is 12.5 percent. Today, Toyota is ending production at the NUMMI plant in Fremont, sending another 20,000 wage-earners to the unemployment rolls.
At the same time. attitudes are changing about same-sex marriage. The Public Policy Institute of California poll showed a slight majority of Californians now favor same-sex marriage. Although two-thirds of registered Republicans oppose such unions, it's far less relevant among younger voters, no matter their party affiliation.
Campbell clearly hopes that his understanding of the economy, the state and Capitol Hill will prevail in voter's minds. He shrugs off the attack over his stand on same-sex marriage.
"I do what I think is best," Campbell told me. "Voters will support me if they want to reform this remarkably bad political process."
Perhaps so, but history suggests that Republicans care more about enforcing orthodoxy than appealing to the state's changing electorate. Only 30.8 percent of California's voters are Republican, down from more than 37 percent in 1994. Democratic registration is rising, as is the number of voters who decline to state a party preference.
The GOP lacks a majority in any of California's 58 counties. Perhaps attacks on moderates have something to do with the party's slide.