Identifying and analyzing emerging trends in campaigns and elections.

Is Calif. Sen. Feinstein Vulnerable?

In Senate on September 21, 2011 at 11:58 am

According to a new poll released late last week by the California-based Field survey research organization, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is suffering from the lowest approval ratings of her nearly two-decade tenure in the U.S. Senate. The survey comes as troubling news for the former San Francisco mayor, just 14 months before she must again face the voters in the nation’s most populous state.

The Field Poll of 1,001 registered California voters (Sept. 1-12; 3.2% error factor) shows 44 percent of voters surveyed would not send Feinstein back to Washington for a full fourth term if the election were held today. Forty-one percent indicated that they would support the senator’s reelection bid. This is the first time in Feinstein’s senatorial career, which began in 1993, that her re-elect rating has been “upside down.”

For the past two decades, Ms. Feinstein’s job approval ratings, according to Field’s research, have been consistently positive by comfortable and sometimes impressive margins. Currently, however, they have shrunk to worrisome levels. Forty-one percent of the respondents said that they approve of the job she is doing in the Senate while 39 percent disapprove. The +2 margin is the slimmest of Feinstein’s career. Her approval/disapproval numbers are 60-21 percent among Democrats, but just 40-32 percent among unaffiliated and independent voters.

Feinstein’s California Senate colleague, Barbara Boxer, who won reelection by 10 percentage points in 2010, is also experiencing an approval ratings decline. Boxer’s latest job approval score is upside down at 39-42 percent.

California voters give Congress as a whole its lowest rating since 1992 with just a 9 percent approval and an overwhelming 86 percent disapproval score.

However, the fact that California is one of the nation’s most reliable Democratic states obviously cuts in Sen. Feinstein’s favor, as it did for Boxer in 2010 when she faced the most serious challenge of her career against former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina (R).

Potential opposition is also an obvious vulnerability factor and this is where California Republicans normally suffer. Finding a candidate with a high enough name identification to become a viable statewide candidate is a difficult task. With a population of 37.2 million people, 23.6 million of whom are registered to vote, a Republican challenger either must begin with virtually universal name identification, such as former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, or have so much money that they can spend their way into familiarity.

In a race against Feinstein, one such GOP candidate could possibly be emerging. Michael Reagan, the adopted son of President Ronald Reagan and a former national talk show host, is reportedly considering launching his candidacy. The latest Field numbers will undoubtedly capture his interest, but he is reportedly a long way from committing to a statewide race. The Senator, for her part, hasn’t yet announced that she will even run for re-election. Now 78 years old, Ms. Feinstein decided against running in the open governor’s race last year, a job she always coveted, even when it looked to be hers for the taking.

Though a Feinstein-Reagan race would clearly be competitive, and give the Republicans at least a chance at scoring a huge upset, neither candidate is firmly in the race. In the end, Feinstein will clearly be favored, but these new Golden State developments are at least worthy of serious attention.

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