Politics & Government

California's Boxer faces toughest Senate race yet

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA. January 2007. (Chuck Kennedy/MCT)
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA. January 2007. (Chuck Kennedy/MCT) Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — Few would deny that Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer is a polarizing figure in Washington and a power broker in Congress.

As she navigates her most difficult race in years, however, her record is on trial.

Her opponent, Republican Carly Fiorina, points out that few pieces of legislation bear Boxer's name. She portrays the incumbent as a do-nothing senator, arguing that Boxer's partisanship makes it impossible for her to forge high-profile bipartisan agreements.

"She hasn't done anything for the people of California, other than make their lives more difficult," Fiorina, the former head of Hewlett-Packard, told reporters in Washington recently.

The criticism extends this year to voices usually more friendly to Boxer. The San Francisco Chronicle has declined to endorse in the race, saying the senator "failed to distinguish herself during her 18 years in office."

For Boxer's supporters, the record is one of a passionate advocate, a champion of the little guy and a big-time friend of Mother Nature who has written laws protecting more than 1 million acres of federal land in California.

She's a member of the Senate leadership team and the only senator to head two committees, the Environment and Public Works Committee and the ethics committee.

"Boxer's voting record has been strongly liberal, among the most liberal in the Senate," says the Almanac of American Politics, which offers in-depth profiles of members of Congress every two years. "She is perhaps the personification of the feminist left and is one of the strongest proponents of abortion rights in the Senate."

On the campaign trail this year, Boxer says her biggest accomplishment has been winning funding for a veterans casualty care center in San Diego.

Before it opened, she said, there was no such facility on the West Coast, forcing many California veterans to go to the East Coast for treatment.

Environmentalists cite her long-standing opposition to offshore oil drilling.

"It's a signature accomplishment," said Carl Pope, chairman of the national Sierra Club. "If you're looking for the one that would be her epitaph, it would be that California's coast is safe because of Barbara Boxer. The oil industry has been back a number of times to try to open up our coast, and every time Senator Boxer's been there to stop it."

Boxer, who campaigned hard against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, also has carried a loud voice on issues of war and peace.

A member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she was one of 23 senators to vote against the war in Iraq. She has been pushing hard for the United States to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by next summer, as promised by President Barack Obama.

After winning re-election by a large margin in 2004, Boxer has been outspoken in her current term.

In January 2005, she was the lone senator to oppose the award of Ohio's electoral votes to President George W. Bush. And at a highly publicized hearing later that month, she attacked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, telling her that her "loyalty to the mission" in the Iraq War "overwhelmed your respect for the truth."

She also has been an advocate of greater public spending in an attempt to create jobs.

Last year, she backed Obama's $814 billion stimulus package. Earlier this month, she voted for a jobs bill that would create a $30 billion fund to help banks increase lending to small businesses. Obama signed it into law last week.

Boxer led the charge to win the first major funding for after-school programs, teaming up with Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada.

She worked with Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma to pass a major water resources development bill, which authorized $1.3 billion for 54 flood control, ecosystem restoration and navigation projects in California; it was vetoed by Bush, but Boxer led the fight for a successful override.

Boxer, however, failed to achieve one of her biggest goals this year: getting a cap-and-trade bill passed by Congress.

The legislation, which aimed to lessen greenhouse-gas emissions, stalled in the Senate after passing Boxer's Environment Committee. Proponents failed to get the 60 votes required to block a Republican filibuster.

Boxer said she regarded committee passage as a success and noted that other backers, including Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, also could not win support for the bill. She said she's much more patient than when she first joined the Senate and that patience is needed now.

"It took 10 years to pass the Clean Air Act," she said. "So we've been at this a few years, and we have to keep pushing. And the more people see heat waves in Russia that cause incredible fires, horrible floods in Pakistan, huge pieces of ice shelf breaking off in Greenland, hopefully people will come to the table and work with us."

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has worked closely with Boxer for 18 years, said her greatest strength is as "a strong advocate" for such things as the environment and abortion rights. But she said Boxer is being judged by more than her record this year.

"I believe that Barbara is a fine senator and she deserves re-election," Feinstein said. "Here's the problem: The economy is bad, and everybody is looking for someone to blame."

Feinstein has become an issue in the race, as well, with Fiorina calling her a bipartisan senator who gets things done, in contrast with her Democratic colleague.

Unlike Boxer, Feinstein is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which has put her in a prime position to steer billions of dollars for projects in the Golden State.

But Feinstein said she and Boxer match up well.

"Just as men have different styles as representatives of a state, women have different styles as well," Feinstein said. "That does not mean that we are not strong colleagues. On some issues, I take the lead and she supports me, and on others she takes the lead and I support her. We have had a very strong relationship for California, and I think it's been to California's benefit."

Boxer got her start as an advocate early, volunteering for anti-Vietnam War candidate Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign in 1968.

In her first Senate race in 1992, she visited a Head Start facility in Sacramento and noted that the entire federal program could be doubled for the cost of a single B-2 bomber.

Boxer had already served 10 years in the House, making a splash by publicizing the Air Force's $7,622 coffee pot in 1984. Nine years later, she led a women's march to defend Anita Hill, who had come under attack during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

But many prognosticators wrote off Boxer, saying her politics were too far left to win a statewide election in California, which had sent Ronald Reagan to the White House.

Not only did Boxer win her initial Senate bid, she won again in 1998 and 2004, the last time in a landslide that produced nearly 7 million votes, more than any other senator in U.S. history.

Now one of the Senate's longest-serving women, Boxer is facing the toughest re-election challenge of her career.

Polls show her maintaining a slight lead against Fiorina. Given the tightness of the race, and the political mood, Boxer is clearly on the defensive.

"In a cycle like this one, where voters are just so angry, I think it is really difficult to prove your effectiveness, because it's like the bar is raised in some way," said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the Cook Political Report. "You also get tarred with voters' feelings about leadership, and right now the feelings are not all that good."

After serving much of her first two terms in the minority, Boxer has adjusted to life in the majority.

As the chief deputy whip for Senate Democrats since 2005, she ranks fifth in the party's leadership, behind Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Chuck Schumer of New York and Patty Murray of Washington. That means she helps shape the party's agenda and is at the leadership table when issues get hammered out.

Boxer last year received a score of 100 from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, voting in line with its priorities every single time.

Analysts are uncertain whether her record as a party loyalist will help or hurt her when voters go to the polls on Nov. 2.

"It's not a good year to be a Democrat, and her record is basically a down-the-line Democratic loyalist," said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. "On the other hand, it's a very Democratic state. And so it remains to be seen if a very Democratic state will go for a quite conservative Republican, even in a year when people are not happy with the status quo."

With control of the Senate at stake, the race is attracting national attention.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has taken aim at Boxer, running ads against her as part of a $75 million national effort to elect pro-business candidates.

"Barbara Boxer has been hostile to the business community and her policies have cost California jobs," said Bill Miller, the chamber's national political director. "We're engaging in this race to highlight her record on job creation, or lack thereof, and remind voters there's a positive alternative in Carly Fiorina."

Boxer said she's expecting a tough campaign and she's eager to defend her record and draw contrasts with Fiorina.

"My name is Boxer," she said. "But I'm not a punching bag."

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