Conservatives Rallying To Chuck DeVore in California Senate Race

“Obama Rides to Boxer’s Rescue,” blared the headline of a story in the April 20 Washington Times. The story went on to say that far-left California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer this year faces the “toughest race of her career.”

At age 69 and after 28 years in Congress (ten in the House, the last 18 in the Senate), the ultra-liberal Boxer, who has an incredibly low lifetime American Conservative Union rating of only 2.96%) will have to run against the winner of a heated three-man Republican primary. 

Why is a Democratic incumbent so vulnerable in a state that has not given its electoral votes to a Republican candidate for President or elected a Republican senator since 1988? Why should Barack Obama have to jet to the Golden State, of all places, to headline two fund-raising events for a senator who should be coasting to re-election?

The answers to these questions lie in the unusual political dynamics of 2010. Like other veteran office-holders, Boxer faces increased voter skepticism at a time when being an insider is not viewed as an asset. Moreover, the shrill-voiced chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is finding out that, even in California, voters are giving low marks to the Obama agenda that she champions without hesitation: healthcare “reform,” massive stimulus packages, and the cap-and-trade-climate-control energy tax that Boxer is Obama’s quarterback for in the Senate.

When these unpopular programs are coupled with 12.6% unemployment in California and a Central Valley wracked by a Grapes of Wrath-like drought that is widely blamed on regulations being enforced by the Obama Interior Department, it is easy to understand why the most recent Field Poll showed Boxer with only a 38% approval rating statewide and 51% disapproval. 

All this puts the California Senate contest high on the “opportunity for victory” list at the National Republican Senatorial Committee and draws growing attention from press and politicians on the three Republicans vying for the Senate nod in the June 6 primary: former Hewlett-Packard chief executive officer Carly Fiorina, former Rep. (and two-time Senate loser) Tom Campbell, and State Assemblyman Chuck DeVore.

For conservatives, there is one choice to put up against Boxer: DeVore, U.S. Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, former Reagan Administration official, and the leading spear-carrier on the right in Sacramento on issues ranging from the pro-life cause to slashing the size of government to nuclear power.

“Fearless Peerless” 

It is hard to find a California conservative activist who doesn’t know or at least know of Chuck DeVore. 

The Orange County native has been active in conservative causes and campaigns since he was a teenager and, quite often as an adult, leading them. After stints in the Pentagon under Ronald Reagan and later on the staff of former Rep. Christopher Cox (R.-Calif.), he spent several years working for a defense contractor in Orange County. 

Two years ago, DeVore, a frequent contributor to HUMAN EVENTS, was seeking a conservative candidate and became the first California Republican office-holder to back Fred Thompson for President. Now in his third term as a state legislator, DeVore defied liberal Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s call for a record-high tax increase in ’09 and later campaigned vigorously against the tax hike when it was on the statewide ballot. (The proposal lost resoundingly, forcing Schwarzenegger and the Democratic leadership in the state legislature to make spending cuts to balance the budget.)

DeVore went as far as to resign his position in the Assembly GOP leadership to protest the tax increase. “Fearless Peerless”—the nickname applied in Allen Drury’s epic novel Capable of Honor, to fictional President Harley Hudson for his courage against the odds—could easily be applied to DeVore. 

“And going back to my days at Claremont McKenna College, I have always loved to debate issues,” the Senate hopeful told me during a recent interview.  “I have said I will debate any opponent, any place, at any time, and on any national issue. Bring them on!”

… And The Others

Can voters find the same good-as-Goldwater background and issue stands as DeVore in his GOP primary opponents Fiorina or Campbell? Hardly.

When she first began exploring a Senate bid last year, Fiorina, a close advisor to John McCain in his ’08 presidential campaign, appeared a safe choice for conservatives. In large part because they felt she was an attractive candidate who could raise big money, some on the right (notably California Republican National Committeeman Shawn Steel) were willing to overlook Fiorina’s lack of a record in any office and back her on the basis of her assurances that she was pro-life, against Obamacare and for nuclear power and offshore drilling.

In recent weeks, however, doubts have been mounting about Fiorina’s conservatism and her campaign savvy. During a breakfast in Washington hosted by the American Spectator November 23, Fiorina told me that while she did not study Sonia Sotomayor in great detail (“I was battling cancer at the time”), she probably would have “voted for her” confirmation to the Supreme Court. 

After at first backing away from her support of Sotomayor in a televised exchange with DeVore and Campbell, Fiorina more recently said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle that, yes, she would have backed the Obama nominee for the high court.

On two other issues, doubts on the right about Fiorina have grown. While supporting securing the border and a guest worker program, she would not say what she felt should happen to the illegal immigrants already here and would not say if she supported mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions (enacted by the California legislature).

As for former Rep. Campbell (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 55%), he runs strongly in several polls in large part because of name recognition from two losing Senate bids because he ran for governor for several months before switching to the Senate primary.

But in a primary limited to registered Republicans and “declined-to-state voters” (those who don’t list their party preference), he faces many huge problems, starting with a decidedly liberal record in Congress (which includes opposing a ban on partial birth abortion, opposing the Strategic Defense Initiative and backing gun control). He also supports gay marriage, and backed Schwarzenegger’s tax-increase proposal while running for governor in 2009, before jumping into the Senate race in January. 

Moreover, many Republicans still bitterly recall the former congressman’s mean-spirited losing race for the Senate nomination against conservative television commentator Bruce Herschensohn in 1992. In that race, Campbell viciously attacked his opponent with TV spots proclaiming, “Bruce Herschensohn is lying! He wants to take away your Social Security!” and charged that the conservative hopeful’s vision of a flat tax would lead to a depression in which “the crash of ’29 would be nothing compared to the crash of ’92.” (Campbell’s charge brought a sharp rebuke from the candidate’s onetime faculty advisor at the University of Chicago, economist Milton Friedman, who told HUMAN EVENTS: “I cannot agree with that extreme statement. It is not a justifiable thing.”

Herschensohn defeated Campbell for the nomination but lost to Boxer that fall as Bill Clinton was sweeping California. In 2000, when Campbell did win the Republican Senate nomination to oppose Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, many Republicans (including his two primary opponents) refused to endorse him, in part because of his savaging of Herschensohn eight years earlier. Campbell lost to Feinstein by a 2-to-1margin, the most lopsided Senate race outcome ever in California. 

But Can He Win?

Still warmly regarded as “Mr. Conscience of a California Conservative” by GOP activists in the Golden State, Bruce Herschensohn is Chuck DeVore’s honorary campaign chairman this year. Led by another conservative hero, Rep. Tom McClintock (R.-Calif.), some 60% of the state’s elected Republican officials have endorsed DeVore for the Senate. 

As he has with Marco Rubio in Florida and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Sen. Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.) has given his pre-primary blessings to DeVore and recently raised more than $100,000 for him.

Wherever the 47-year-old DeVore appeared at the Western Conservative Political Action Committee in Newport Beach or at the California Republican Assembly (CRA) in Los Angeles County or at the huge Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, he never failed to electrify his audience. Indeed, if the Senate nominee in California were chosen by gatherings of conservative activists, DeVore would be chosen by acclamation.

But, of course, it’s the primary voters in California who will choose the nominee June 8. A recent Capitol Weekly/Probolsky poll showed Campbell leading the field with 31% of likely primary voters, followed by Fiorina at 17% and DeVore at 14%.

“And that’s pretty good for someone who has been outspent heavily by others, one of whom has run statewide twice and was running for governor for months before he entered this race,” DeVore told me. Although the conservative hopeful has not been on television to the degree that his opponents have, he noted that “in terms of social-networking, using Facebook and Twitter and spots in the Internet, we’re ahead of them. And the ‘carpet-bombing’ of big media buys just won’t work anymore when facing this kind of modern campaigning—as Barack Obama demonstrated two years ago.”

But it will also take considerable support from conservatives nationwide for Chuck DeVore to have the opportunity to expand and enlarge his campaign of volunteer activists and internet supporters. Both Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rubio of Florida came from behind dramatically to the verge of wrapping up Senate nominations in their respective states. The next stage is in the nomination of Chuck DeVore—and for California conservatives, the opportunity of a generation.