California is the largest state in the United States, and despite being strongly slanted towards the Democrats, it is currently facing fiercely-contested races for both the Senate and the Governor’s office.

California’s two Senate seats are both currently held by Democrats. One seat has been Democrat-held since 1968, while the other has been Democrat-held since 1992. Both current California senators were elected in 1992: Barbara Boxer won the regular Senate election, while Dianne Feinstein was elected to fill the remaining two years of the Senate term of Governor Pete Wilson, who had been elected in 1990.

Both have won re-election at every election since 1992, and Boxer is running for re-election in 2010. Her Republican opponent is Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina. Fiorina won the Republican nomination in a heavily contested primary which featured unusual campaign tactics, such as the “demon sheep ad”, in which she compared a rival to a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Boxer has lead in most polls, but never by much. In the last week, one poll had the candidates tied on 44%, while another had Boxer leading 48-46. Boxer is the favourite, but not by much. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight gives Fiorina a 19% chance of unseating Boxer. If the Republicans are going to win the ten seats they need to gain control of the Senate.

In recent decades, California’s Governor’s office has been dominated by Republicans. Only four Democrats held office in the 20th century. In 1962, former Vice President Richard Nixon’s planned comeback was delayed when he lost to sitting Democratic Governor Pat Brown, who served two terms from 1959 to 1967. Brown lost to Ronald Reagan in 1966. Reagan served for two terms, and following his retirement at the 1974 election, he was succeeded by Jerry Brown, son of Pat Brown. Brown Jr served two terms as Governor, stepping down in 1982 to contest the US Senate unsuccessfully.

Republican Governors held office for four terms from 1983 to 1999. Governor Pete Wilson stepped down in 1998, and the election was won by Democratic Lieutenant Governor Gray Davis. Davis was originally popular, and won a second term, but in 2001 he faced a massive electricity crisis, with power shortages and rolling blackouts. His popularity waned, and in 2003 his opponents achieved sufficient signatures to trigger a vote to have Davis recalled.

The recall vote passed with 55% of the vote, and in a field of 135 candidates Arnold Schwarzenegger won with 48.6% of the vote. Schwarzenegger served the remaining three years of Davis’ term, and was re-elected with 55% in 2006.

In 2010, the Democrats are running Jerry Brown, 36 years after he first ran for Governor. If elected, Brown would be the oldest Governor to win an election, at the age of 72. Brown had run for President in 1976, 1980 and 1992. He returned to politics in 1999 when he was elected as the independent Mayor of Oakland. He went on to win election as Attorney-General of California in 2006, and has served in that office for the last four years.

The Republican primary was won by former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman. Brown has lead in most polls, winning all but one poll, with margins from 4% to 12%. FiveThirtyEight gives Whitman a 14% chance of winning the gubernatorial election.

California voters will also be voting on nine referendum questions to change California state law. Proposition 19 would legalise cannabis for general use, creating a system of taxation and regulation, like that applied to alcohol and tobacco. Most recent polls have the race extremely close, with enough undecided voters to allow either side to win. One recent poll, however, had the ‘no’ case leading 51-39%.

Voters will also consider a proposal, Proposition 20, to shift responsibility for drawing California’s federal electoral boundaries from the state legislature to an independent redistricting commission that was set up in 2008 to draw State Assembly and State Senate boundaries. This proposition has been opposed by Proposition 27, which would completely abolish the independent commission and hand back the power to draw electoral boundaries to the same state legislators who have created California’s extremely gerrymandered and very safe electorates. The campaign to abolish the commission has been funded by Democratic politicians and other supporters of California’s Democratic establishment.

In 2010, very few of California’s 53 House of Representatives seats are close races, primarily due to boundaries drawn before 2002 in order to lock in every incumbents’ position. If Proposition 20 is passed, California’s new electoral boundaries will likely be drawn without consideration of partisan benefit, and open up many more seats to competitive contests.

Peter Fray

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