BURBANK, Calif. — If Republicans are to have a serious chance of capturing control of the U.S. Senate in November, they must win in traditionally Democratic states like California, where Sen. Barbara Boxer, a three-term Democrat, is showing signs of vulnerability.
But before Republicans get a clear shot at Boxer, they will have to overcome deep divisions within their own party — divides that reflect both the grass-roots energy surging through the conservative movement and the tensions between the party’s moderate and conservative wings.
There are certainly more vulnerable Democratic Senate seats in the country, but early polls in California suggest that Boxer is facing what could be the toughest election of her career. Her difficulties in a state that has for 20 years proved reliably Democratic in national elections suggests how the pendulum has swung against Democrats in just a year. Her potential problems are a function more of this political climate than of any position or vote she has taken.
Still, for Republicans, this could end up being a repeat of a play they have seen before: a promising opportunity escaping them in a state where Democrats have the edge of 1.5 million more voters registered.
Three Republican candidates are in a lacerating battle for their party’s nomination: Carly Fiorina, the wealthy former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard; Tom Campbell, a former member of Congress who fits the moderate profile for the kind of Republican who has won statewide contests in the past; and Charles S. DeVore, a state assemblyman who is presenting himself as the Tea Party candidate.
It is hard to see how Republicans could win control of the Senate without toppling Boxer. Democrats control the chamber 59-41; Republicans need 10 seats to take control, since in an evenly divided Senate, Vice President Joe Biden would cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the Democrats. Eight Democratic seats are considered vulnerable, but Republicans must hold on to at least four of their own seats that appear vulnerable. Even if Republicans won all those highly contested races, they would still need two more victories, and at the moment California might be their best chance to expand the battlefield.
Democrats fear that a Supreme Court decision allowing corporations to spend freely on political campaigns could encourage a flood of advertising against Boxer.
She is clearly aware of the threat to her re-election and has moved forcefully to deal with it. She has already raised nearly $11 million.
“If you’re asking me if Republicans have a chance to beat me, I’m going to answer this way: I never take any election for granted,” Boxer said in an interview.