Midterms could diminish California’s Senate clout

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) is not up for re-election but may be affected by the 2014 election.
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) is not up for re-election but may be affected by the 2014 election. MCT

Neither Sen. Barbara Boxer nor Sen. Dianne Feinstein is on the ballot Tuesday. But that doesn’t mean that they, and California, don’t have something to lose.

If next week’s elections give Republicans majority control, both California Democrats stand to lose their Senate committee chairmanships and the sway that comes with it.

A Republican takeover would set off a game of musical chairs to determine who will replace Boxer as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee and Feinstein on Intelligence. It also has the potential to affect the re-election plans for Boxer, 73, and Feinstein, 81. Boxer’s current term ends in two years and Feinstein’s expires in four.

A retirement by one or both senators could translate to a further loss of influence for California, political scholars say.

Wendy Schiller, an associate professor of political science at Brown University, who’s studied how senators from the same state work together, said a longtime partnership like Boxer’s and Feinstein’s benefits California on key issues. And it’s not easy to get it back.

She points to Massachusetts, which was represented for more than two decades by Democrats Edward Kennedy and John Kerry. Kennedy died in 2009 and Kerry became Secretary of State last year. That bumped the state to the back of the seniority line.

“When states lose one senior senator it is bad enough,” Schiller said. “But when they lose two senators who have learned how to work together over two decades and aggressively represent their state, it takes about as long to regain that influence.”

California interest groups have a lot at stake in the relationships they’ve built with the two senators over the years.

“You value the most those relationships you’ve had the longest,” said Tim Johnson, president and CEO of the California Rice Commission.

Rayne Thompson, manager of federal policy for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said that members of her organization have always worked well with Feinstein.

“She knows how to use her position in an effective way,” Thompson said of Feinstein.

Environmental groups consider Boxer a staunch ally. They’re not eager to see her lose her chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee, but are preparing for it.

“She’s been a champion,” said Kathryn Phillips, the director of Sierra Club California.

Neither Boxer nor Feinstein has dropped clear hints about their future in the Senate, and their decision may not be as simple as which party controls the chamber for the next two years. While this year favors Republicans, the electoral map favors Democrats in 2016 when far more Republicans are up for re-election.

“That may well motivate them to hold on for another six years,” said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University who’s an expert on Congress.

Boxer and Feinstein have been in the minority before, and ranking members still carry considerable clout on Senate committees.

In recent years, Feinstein has used her seniority on the Judiciary Committee to shape immigration policy. She’s also had a decisive role in national security, chairing the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence since 2009.

In the Environment and Public Works Committee, which Boxer has led since 2007, she’s worked with Republicans on water infrastructure and transportation bills.

Both have worked together to bring California drought relief.

But Congress has become a tough place to do business, even for experienced lawmakers. And running again could lose its appeal in the minority.

“The appeal of life in Washington is not that high these days,” said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. “Returning to California as a civilian is not the worst possible fate.”

But in two years, it will be Republicans, not Democrats who will face the more challenging electoral map. Whereas Democrats have 21 seats to defend this fall, Republicans will have to defend 24 seats in 2016, a presidential election year.

Any Democrat at the top of the ticket then will be more popular than President Barack Obama, Jacobson said.

“Chances are good the Senate will flip again in two years,” he said.

Ultimately, Binder said, the decision about whether to seek re-election is a personal one. “The biggest thing is whether they’ve had enough,” she said. “Did they make the mark they wanted to make?”

Democrats held a majority during the first two years Boxer and Feinstein were in the Senate. But life in the chamber didn’t come naturally, as both had built their political careers in institutions that operated very differently. Boxer had served five terms in the House of Representatives, while Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco for a decade.

Getting things done in the Senate wasn’t as simple as giving an order at city hall, Feinstein told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. There were the rules and procedures that slowed things down. An objection from one senator could bring the chamber’s business to a halt.

“The Senate is frustrating,” she told the newspaper then.

But they learned, over time, work within its constraints. In just the first two years, they successfully overcame objections from Republicans to enact the Desert Protection Act, which expanded federal wilderness in the Mojave Desert.

Boxer made an early push for the Violence Against Women Act, legislation she had written in the House. Feinstein got a ban on the sale and manufacture of military-style automatic weapons attached as an amendment to the 1994 Crime Bill.

Feinstein has built a reputation of compromising with Republicans, and in some cases voting with them. She sided with former President George W. Bush on his 2001 tax cuts and the 2002 authorization for the use of military force in Iraq, a vote she later said she regretted.

Boxer has at times shown more of a combative streak. She not only opposed the Iraq resolution and Bush’s judicial nominees, she also voted against confirming his re-election. The Senate approved Ohio’s 2004 electoral vote count 74-1, giving Bush a second term. The only no vote was Boxer’s.

But Boxer, too, has forged productive alliances with her Republican colleagues and groups from her home state. Johnson, of the Rice Commission, said he’ll never forget the time more than a decade ago when he and a group of rice farmers walked into her office.

“We said, ‘we don’t have any agenda,’” Johnson recalled. “We want to talk to you about how we grow our crop.”

Johnson said that he wouldn’t expect the loss of Boxer’s committee chairmanship to affect his group’s ability to advocate in Washington. However, he said that if Boxer were to leave the Senate, it would be another story.

“It would be a loss for agriculture in the state,” he said.