SAN FRANCISCO -- Sen. Barbara Boxer rides into the war of her professional life this fall chasing the 60 votes needed to carry a major climate change bill through the Senate. Along the way, she'll no doubt be pulled, pushed and prodded as never before, as believers, skeptics and everyone in between angles for their piece of what would be the most-sweeping energy policy bill to survive the Senate floor.
But one factor the three-term Democratic senator from California and chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee will apparently not have to puzzle over during the upcoming slog is her own re-election fight in 2010.
Boxer, a Brooklyn native, is headed for a midterm campaign that of late has turned from sizzle to fizzle. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has approval ratings worse than, well, Lindsay Lohan and appears content to return to Hollywood when his term expires next year, leaving the Republican field wide open.
Into that void has jumped just one GOP contender -- California State Assemblyman Chuck DeVore -- with name recognition so poor a recent poll found 82 percent of the electorate and 80 percent of Republicans have no opinion of the man. Another possible contender, former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, is fighting breast cancer and won't decide on her candidacy until she completes chemotherapy treatment this summer.
So Boxer, who has clawed her way through tough campaigns in the past, is positioned in this cycle to comfortably take whichever direction she needs to take as she cobbles together a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans to get her 60 votes on climate. If anything, that could put her in a stronger position to safely compromise with Rust Belt senators and others worried about the economic effects of a carbon cap.
Boxer herself appears confident of her status and dismisses any suggestion that the horse-trading to come would be affected by her campaign, telling E&E that California is strongly behind her attempt to guide a federal climate bill through Congress.
"It doesn't matter to me whether I'm in cycle or out of cycle," Boxer said. "I'm going to write the best bill that I can."
Others agreed that her focus is in the right place, especially given the near-vacant field of challengers. "I don't think voters will blame Senator Boxer for those compromises," said Warner Chabot, CEO of the California League of Conservation Voters. "Californians want immediate action on climate change."
One of Boxer's key strategies for fending off interested challengers has been to raise money early in the cycle. As of March 31, the Boxer campaign had $4.6 million on hand, to a paltry $350,000 raised by DeVore at press time.
Fiorina, if she runs, could potentially match Boxer financially from her own deep pockets. As for the governor, Schwarzenegger once had the star power to match Boxer's draw, but apparently he lacks the will following several years of bruising budget fights in Sacramento.
The polls are also leaning heavily in Boxer's favor. The Field Poll in early March found Boxer leading Schwarzenegger 54 to 30 percent, up from an October 2007 survey from the same polling firm that had Boxer trailing, 43 to 44 percent.
Against Fiorina, the numbers are even better for the incumbent. Boxer lead Fiorina 55 percent to 25 percent in the March Field Poll.
And the polls showed even dimmer prospects for DeVore. The Field Poll, which did not bother to run DeVore against Boxer head-to-head, found that the Central Valley lawmaker would struggle to get the GOP nomination, drawing 9 percent in a field that includes Fiorina and Schwarzenegger, and 19 percent against Fiorina.
All of which has Democratic strategists in the Golden State nonplused about the Senate race, especially in a matchup with DeVore, who is seen as a conservative not likely to appeal to California's liberal mainstream.
"There's just no bench," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist, of the GOP contenders. "She's in very good political shape."
Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster from Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates, said Republican operatives, though they won't concede it, have already decided to focus on the crowded governor's race instead of the Senate seat.
"I think they've realized over time that Barbara is a pretty formidable figure right now," Maslin said. "They'll put a name on the ballot ... but it's going to be doubtful they'll have a substantial challenge."
Climate leadership playing at home
Given this position, Boxer could be free to chip away at opposition from coal-state lawmakers as she see fits, in much the same way House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) delivered a milder bill that managed to squeak through the House last month.
But whether making those deals would come naturally to the usually brash, always-outspoken Boxer is an open question. Chabot said Boxer may face pressure from the left, especially in California, to not "weaken" the bill any further than the House version.
Some environmentalists, in fact, are banking on Boxer to craft a tougher version than the House measure, possibly restoring U.S. EPA authority over key parts of the carbon market rulemaking, stiffening the greenhouse gas emissions cap and decreasing the number of carbon allowances given away for free.
Moreover, prominent political figures in the state are still pressing for provisions that would respect California's climate law, A.B. 32. Whether a federal bill pre-empts the California law is a subject of much discussion, and some expect Boxer to go to the mat for her home state (Greenwire, July 8).
For now, Boxer appears to have bought herself more time to make these tough decisions. She has delayed a markup until September, prompting criticism from the right that more backroom deals and arm-twisting are likely (Greenwire, July 9).
In terms of the campaign, Chabot said a weaker bill probably would not hurt Boxer back home. Environmentalists and others leaning to the left in California are not likely to take it out on Boxer in 2010 if she doesn't get a more strident measure through the Senate, he said, because, simply put, they have nowhere else to turn.
"If it comes down to a vote for her and a vote for someone else who is going to do much worse on the environment, it's a pretty easy decision," he said.
"She's very popular with environmental activists," adds Carrick. "And a significant majority of voters have been very supportive of her positions. I don't think she has any tension in terms of her leadership."
A Republican silver lining?
But to GOP strategists in the state, Boxer's prominence in the climate debate means one thing: She's on the hot seat.
Kevin Roberts, communications director for the California Republican Party, acknowledged that Democrats in Congress have been able to direct the climate debate largely as they see fit. But he suspects this "ownership" could create an opening for a smart challenger to squeak through in 2010, especially if that candidate is able to capitalize on anti-environmental sentiment born of the faltering economy.
If Boxer prevails on the climate bill, Roberts thinks she would be vulnerable to attack in 2010 as part of a "leftward lurch" that has left California toward 20 and 30 percent unemployment in some parts of the state. In California's farm belt, much of the joblessness is connected to environmental policies limiting water supply to save fish and protect the climate, he said.
"A climate change bill is fundamentally an energy tax," Roberts said. "I do believe that would hurt her ... the economy is still at the forefront of people's minds, and the economy is going to dominate the conversation."
Another Republican operative said if Fiorina gets into the race, the former executive plans to make the balance between the economy and the environment a prominent campaign theme. Fiorina, who is viewed by many as a centrist voice, could be cast as less "ideologically bound" to environmentalism than Boxer and closer to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on many economic issues.
"If Carly chooses to run, you would hear her discuss issues that would differ from the old-style extremes," this operative said.
DeVore also senses opportunity in the climate fight. The assemblyman blames policies like A.B. 32 for driving manufacturing jobs out of California and doing little to cut greenhouse gases worldwide given the reluctance of developing nations like China and India to go along.
In an interview, DeVore said he intends to make Boxer's climate leadership a prominent theme of his campaign. He says that leadership has helped push the state to the brink of insolvency.
"I believe that in next year's political environment, especially in California, where Boxer for the first time will be running in an environment with a very bad economy and Democrats in control, I think she'll be very hard pressed to justify measures she pushed that would increase the cost of energy," he said.
And the lack of name recognition?
"I'm not a celebrity, I'm not a millionaire," DeVore said. "But if you run against an incumbent, it's always a referendum on the incumbent."
Senior reporter Darren Samuelsohn contributed from Washington.