Political insiders and other hacks have obsessed for months about the personalities and issues of Campaign 2010. As Labor Day marks the traditional start of the political season, however, it’s finally the voters’ turn to have a say. Here are seven key questions shaping the November 2 election.
1. Who is Meg Whitman? The former CEO of eBay has already spent well over $100 million running for governor — most of it her own money — but hasn’t told voters much about herself except, well, that she’s the former CEO of eBay.
Her campaign ads have aired almost every day this year, but most have been either negative attacks on her rivals or generic spots filled with platitudes (turns out she’s for jobs, schools, and balanced budgets). And all she’s bought so far is a dead heat with Democrat Jerry Brown.
More than anything, her expensive effort resembles one of the corporate marketing, new-product roll-out campaigns she spent her business career managing. Despite all the tight message discipline emanating from inside her well-insulated campaign cocoon, she still hasn’t offered voters an overarching, compelling, positive reason to be for her.
2. Why is Jerry Brown running? Brown won the Democratic nomination by default, as his name ID and the lingering loyalties among some segments of the party scared off potential rivals.
Aside from frequent press conferences about his actions as attorney general, however, Brown has not yet lifted a finger to communicate with voters, let alone put forth a clear message of his vision for repairing California’s badly battered economy and government.
Badly overmatched by Whitman’s lavish spending, he sat on a $25-million campaign fund all summer; now he needs to tell voters exactly what he plans to do as governor before he’s buried under a fall tsunami of negative ads.
3. Will Obama help or hurt Barbara Boxer? Although the three-term incumbent senator holds a narrow lead over Republican foe Carly Fiorina, Democrats have fallen into deep disfavor across the country; national Republicans now see her as vulnerable, in a race she was once heavily favored to win, and view beating her as crucial to their chances of seizing control of the Senate.
For better or worse, the very liberal Boxer is closely tied to President Obama on health care, climate change, and the effectiveness of the stimulus bill in creating jobs. The president is a drag in other states but could help here.
4. Do abortion rights still matter? Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, relentlessly bashes Boxer as an avatar of all that’s wrong with Washington, working hard to take advantage of the anti-politician zeitgeist of 2010.
While effective in tying the incumbent to the pain and peril of the recession, Fiorina might prove vulnerable on several cultural issues on which she’s aligned with Sarah Palin, who’s enthusiastically endorsed her. Most notably on abortion rights, Fiorina is out of step with a majority of Californians; the issue has been decisive in several of Boxer’s past races but may matter less in a year when voters are far more concerned about jobs.
5. How much money in the pot? Entrepreneurs behind the medical marijuana industry have bankrolled Proposition 19, a nationally watched initiative that would essentially legalize pot for personal use, regulating it like alcohol.
Supporters have largely framed the issue as a financial boon, as it would authorize state and local governments to license and tax marijuana sales. They argue it would generate billions in new revenue and redirect spending on law enforcement resources aimed at what they call a victimless crime. Public safety and elected officials have lined up against the measure, which faces an uphill fight.
6. Will economic anxiety trump environmental protection? Also in the national spotlight is the battle over Proposition 23, which would roll back California’s unprecedented restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants.
The oil industry is funding and fiercely fighting for the initiative as a necessary measure to protect the economy, but a coalition of environmental and business interests, led by Governor Schwarzenegger, argues that the state’s landmark climate-change law will protect the environment while creating new green jobs.
7. Will majority rule? Legislative Democrats are pushing hard for Proposition 25, which would toss out the current two-thirds vote requirement to pass a budget, and allow them to act without Republican votes. GOP lawmakers argue that Democrats will use this as the first step in eroding a similar, supermajority vote mandate to approve tax increases. Either way, the outcome will reverberate for years in Sacramento by pointing to which party voters blame for gridlock in the Capitol.