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A Tea Party Candidate Promises Fiorina a Fight

Devore-fiorina.jpg
Devore-fiorina.jpg

Chuck DeVore and Carly Fiorina (Photos courtesy of Chuck DeVore, Agencia Brasil)

Carly Fiorina announced her 2010 campaign for California’s U.S. Senate seat in the usual way. She rolled out a new Website. She bounded across a stage at a “green detergents” factory to the strains of “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and gave a short speech about “solutions that work.” Then she added a step that has become more-or-less essential for serious Republicans–a conference call with conservative bloggers. Over 23 minutes, she fielded some of the friendlier questions she’d get all day, such as whether she’d learned anything from 2009′s successful Republican candidates that could help her in her challenge to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

“My team knows very well how to run a campaign against a nasty Democrat,” said Fiorina.

[GOP1]Halfway through the call, however, conservative blogger Dan Riehl awoke the elephant in the room. Did Fiorina have anything to say to Chuck DeVore? One day earlier, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) had endorsed DeVore, a Republican assemblyman from Irvine, Calif., who had been running against Boxer for months, and had pre-emptively attacked Fiorina for her allegedly liberal positions.

“I am a pro-life conservative,” said Fiorina. “I believe in the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman. I am a fiscal conservative. In other words, I share the conservative values that many Republican voters share, and have been public about that for a very long time.”

Riehl stayed on the line, posing more questions from the right about McCain-Feingold campaign legislation, and about regulation of the internet. “I’m just picking up on things that I’ve seen,” he said, “that have been used to come after you from the conservative base.” And Fiorina, who had not brought up DeVore, went after him for accepting DeMint’s endorsement. “I find it interesting,” she said, “that Chuck DeVore, a couple weeks ago, was claiming that he is an anti-establishment candidate and perhaps he isn’t quite so much.”

It was a punchy debut for a candidate who, if national Republicans had their way, would not be worrying about a primary. Getting Fiorina, the multi-millionaire former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, to join the race, was a coup for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. And in other public appearances, Fiorina has brushed DeVore aside. Her opponent, she says, is Boxer. The man who got into this race in November 2008 should be an afterthought. As DeVore ties Fiorina in the polls and turns conservative activists against her–as he talks bluntly about fascism and even about Barack Obama’s birth records–he’s forced Republicans to pay attention.

In the wake of the NY-23 special election debacle, where Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman united the national conservative movement against a liberal Republican candidate and let a Democrat sneak in to win a key congressional seat, Republican strategists are looking at more contested primaries than they’d like. While the Senate primary between Marco Rubio and Gov. Charlie Crist (R-Fla.) has gotten the most attention, there are primaries in Ohio, Kentucky, New Hampshire and to a lesser extent Illinois that pit experienced Republican politicians against more ideological activist candidates–some with deep pockets. Democrats who are running defense on their control of Congress are making all they can out of primary battles that, so far, have driven candidates such as Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) to dent their moderate credentials as they try to win over the party’s base.

The California primary is something of an aberration. DeVore has a longer political resume than Fiorina. Her political baptism came as an adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign. He worked for the Reagan administration and has been a member of the California legislature since 2005. He has a lengthy voting record and a longer rhetoric of conservative speeches and blog posts. Ever since it became clear that Fiorina might jump in the race, his small campaign staff has laid traps for her by portraying her as a closet moderate–the kind of candidate many Republicans believe they need in blue California, but not one the base should have to settle for.

“I’m a movement conservative,” DeVore told TWI. “I’ve been in the conservative movement since 1981. I was head of the College Republicans at Cal State-Fullerton.”

DeVore’s case to national activists has been bolstered by unexpectedly strong showings in the polls. According to a Field Poll conducted in October, Fiorina, who had once led DeVore 31-20 in trial heats, had fallen into a 21-20 tie. That Field Poll showed Boxer leading Fiorina by 14 points and DeVore by 17 points; a Rasmussen Poll conducted in September, before both candidates were in the race, showed the race closer, with DeVore outperforming Fiorina. And a November Los Angeles Times poll had DeVore and Fiorina tied at 27 percent each.

One Democratic strategist suggested that if DeVore and Fiorina were on equal financial footing, DeVore would be the stronger candidate. An October FEC report revealed that DeVore, having raised around $700,000, had blown through all but $60,000 of it. DeVore argues that this is more than previous candidates against Boxer have raised; other Republicans look at that as more proof that Fiorina’s potential to raise millions of dollars is another reason to back her. (When one blogger suggested that DeVore’s low fundraising numbers ruled him out as a serious candidate, he dove into the comment section to pronounce “DeVore Derangement Syndrome.”) One Republican strategist suggested to TWI that California Republicans, tired of watching obscure conservative candidates loose statewide elections, are ready to get behind Fiorina. They just didn’t want to throw DeVore under the bus while doing it.

DeVore, well aware of the buzz, has responded by keeping up aggressive web-driven campaigns against Fiorina and Boxer and holding out the possibility that he can raise more money. He told TWI that he’d had conversations with the Club for Growth, the conservative 527 whose money, according to the campaign, “put gas in the tank” for Doug Hoffman.

“I get dozens of emails from him every week, as do other activists,” said Ray McNalley, a Republican strategist in Sacramento. “He’s running a race that’s more aggressive, I think, than what you’ve seen from some of the last statewide Republican challenges. If he comes in with a couple bucks in the bank, if he exceeds expectations, he could light a fire out there.”

From the conservative activist’s perspective, DeVore’s an ideal candidate. After writing a war novel, “China Attacks,” in 2000, DeVore became a frequent reviewer at Amazon.com. His take-outs on action novels and political texts reveal more about his political thinking than most candidates would be comfortable divulging. On a Tom Clancy novel about the threat posed by Japan Devore wrote: “Replace “Japan” with “China” and the thesis holds together rather well in 2005.” On Jonah Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism”: “Roosevelt’s New Deal had much in common with Mussolini’s fascism.” On the libertarian lessons of his state’s economic meltdown: “Gazing at California, [libertarian economist Friedrich von] Hayek would surely shake his head sadly.”

When he speaks at length about politics, DeVore reveals a sober view of his state’s constitutional woes. He was aware, he said, that liberals view California’s supermajority requirements for passing budgets and raising taxes as factors that wrecked the state. He disagrees.

“We’ve had this system in place for quite a while,” said DeVore, “but if you go back before these innovations of term limits, gerrymandering and donation limits, what you find is a remarkable amount of bipartisanship, of budgets getting passed on time. This kind of hyperpartisanship, I think, is a relatively modern invention.”

Asked about the use of the filibuster and senatorial holds in the body he wanted to join, DeVore suggested that presidents might deserve more deference than President Obama is currently getting. He recoiled at the idea of filibustering judges unless there was a reason to. Instead, he talked about issues he wanted to work on with Democrats, such as prison reform.

The quiet campaign against DeVore hasn’t really gotten into those issues. Republican strategists have heavily advertised DeVore’s friendship and connections with Floyd Brown, a Republican strategist who has “disputed” the president’s birth certificate–some of the most unpleasant material wound up in The Huffington Post, credited to a “Republican source.” DeVore acknowledged that Fiorina would cast him as an out-of-the-mainstream radical and make issues out of his connections.

“She’s going to do that,” said DeVore, “just like I’m going to remind people that John McCain and Olympia Snowe and Lindsay Graham are backing her.”

Nonetheless, asked what he thought of Brown’s ideas, DeVore didn’t take the chance to denounce “birther” rumors or the movement itself–which has been heavily active in California.

“The president is doing himself no favors by spending millions of dollars to block the release of documents surrounding his birth certificate,” said DeVore. “As long as the president keeps fighting tooth and nail to prevent the release of such things, people are going to remain skeptical.” The door was left open, said DeVore, because Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign didn’t go after Obama’s qualifications when it had the chance, and because there were no statutory requirements for verifying a candidate’s citizenship.

Answers like that give ammunition to Fiorina’s supporters; they also ensure that the would-be-frontrunner can’t ignore the conservative movement’s preferred candidate. A week after the Fiorina conference call, her campaign created a Website, CallMeBarbara.com, dedicated to a June incident in which Boxer told a military witness to call her “senator” instead of “ma’am.” DeVore’s campaign made great hay out of the Boxer remarks in June, producing a parody Web video, milking the incident for all it was worth. When they saw Fiorina treading the same turf, they blasted out an email to reporters.

“If the Fiorina campaign intends to send out breathless asks with five-month lags,” wrote DeVore media adviser Joshua Trevino, “then I look forward to [a] March 2010 e-mail beginning, “How ’bout them Saints?”

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