SACRAMENTO (CBS / AP) — With members of Congress across the country battling anti-incumbent fever, California’s three-term U.S. senator, Dianne Feinstein, would seem to be a natural target in her re-election bid.
Challenger Elizabeth Emken has presented herself as a fresh face with a commitment to reform, but she has been unable to overcome the flagging popularity of the California Republican Party and her own lack of political experience to mount a credible challenge.
The result: In a year in which the Democratic and Republican parties are chasing any seat that could help them win control of the U.S. Senate, both are essentially ignoring California.
Far better known and better financed than her Republican opponent, California’s senior senator has pushed her case for a fourth full term by stressing her legislative record, especially on the economy and national security, as well as her years in government.
Emken, an autism activist whose only previous campaign experience consists of finishing last among four Republicans in a 2010 congressional primary, beat 23 other little-known candidates in the June primary for a chance to challenge the popular Democratic senator.
The former IBM middle manager picked up 12.5 percent of the vote—twice as much as her closest competitor—but has since struggled to gain recognition and raise money.
A Field Poll conducted in mid-September showed Feinstein leading Emken 57 percent to 31 percent among likely voters and even picking up support from 18 percent of Republicans.
Bill Carrick, Feinstein’s campaign consultant, characterized Emken as “the least qualified candidate” he has seen run against the senator. Feinstein herself said it can be nearly impossible for an unknown to run for statewide office in California because of its size and diversity.
“People think you can just jump into one of these races,” she said. “It is very difficult to do; you have to build a base over time.”
Emken had raised about $200,000 at the time of the most recent Federal Election Commission filings, while Feinstein had gathered nearly $8 million, despite being one of many Democratic candidates and officeholders victimized in an embezzlement scandal involving a former campaign treasurer.
In 1994, former Republican Rep. Michael Huffington spent a then-record $30 million in his unsuccessful bid to unseat Feinstein.
Emken, who lives in the eastern San Francisco Bay area suburb of Danville, is presenting herself as a modern conservative who combines fiscal responsibility with compassion for people such as her autistic son, who depends on the services government provides.
Her campaign has needled Feinstein for her neglect of social media (the 79 year-old senator has since begun tweeting), and faulted her for the rising national debt and California’s ailing economy.
“I believe both parties are sending the wrong kind of people to Washington, D.C.,” Emken, 49, said in a telephone interview. “In California, we’ve had a series of millionaires and billionaires and CEOs and movie stars. We need to take a hard look at how we define legitimate and credible candidates.”
Republicans who might have had a higher profile remained on the sidelines this year, not wanting to go up against the grande dame of California politics, who is one of the most popular and most well-known politicians in state history.
Known as a centrist dealmaker, the former San Francisco mayor has promised to reintroduce the federal ban on assault rifles, leverage her seniority to boost the California economy and use her position as chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee to halt leaks about sensitive information.
“I think I have shown that I can work over the party line,” Feinstein said.
She has pledged to reintroduce the assault weapons ban and push for tax breaks for innovative businesses.
“I will be introducing more than three dozen bills in the early part of the next session,” she said. “I don’t stop. There are people that introduce bills and nothing happens. I don’t quit.”
In a state where Republicans are in danger of dipping below 30 percent of registered voters and Democrats hold every statewide office, the numbers are not in Emken’s favor. The September Field Poll found 7 in 10 likely voters have no opinion of her.
Feinstein notched just less than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, giving her an edge of 1.8 million votes. Under California’s new primary system, all candidates, regardless of party, appear on the same ballot, with the top two finishers moving on to the general election runoff.
Even some members of her own party characterize Emken’s candidacy as a sign of the times for California conservatives.
“What Emken represents is that the Republican Party is incapable of mounting a serious campaign,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican strategist who now publishes the nonpartisan California Target Book.
In other states, political strategists are scrounging for every available vote to put together a majority in the Senate. In California, Feinstein has declined to even debate her opponent.
Emken accuses Feinstein of mistaking the campaign for a “coronation.” Her campaign has been issuing “empty chair” debate updates that taunt the incumbent with an allusion to actor Clint Eastwood’s routine at the Republican National Convention.
Samuel Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, said he thinks there might be an upside for the underdog candidate.
“Is Emken going to be better known or less known after the race?” he said. “She may be thinking way ahead.”
(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)