In 1992, then-Congresswoman Barbara Boxer successfully ran for the U.S. Senate on the coattails of Bill Clinton during the "Year of the Woman.". Since then, she has been re-elected three times despite having been viewed by GOP strategists as being vulnerable each time.
One need not strain the eyes to find a combative and uncompromising legislator in Boxer. Her "call me Senator" gaffe was all too representative of the corrosive rhetoric she has uttered on the floor of the Senate and elsewhere. Liberal interest group give her near-perfect ratings on their scorecards, while conservative groups give her scores near zero each and every year. Boxer's style of legislating and the fights she picks often makes Nancy Pelosi look pragmatic and moderate. Thus it is not surprising that Republicans target her Senate seat each cycle- but they fall short each time when late-breaking voters stick with the incumbent.
Of the three challengers Boxer has faced since her election, Matt Fong did the best against her. But Fong had numerous factors working against him. Pete Wilson's anti-immigrant record and Proposition 187 had driven Hispanic voters solidly into the Democratic camp, making them reliable Boxer voters. The unpopular Clinton impeachment hearings were heating up. Gray Davis was at the top of the ticket and won the election handily. But the defining moment when Barbara Boxer called the pro-choice Fong "anti-choice" because a pro-life organization donated to Fong's campaign. The charge stuck, and the hapless Fong could not nullify it with women voters.
In 2004, Boxer was once again considered vulnerable. California Republicans, psyched from Arnold Schwarzenegger's historic win the year before, looked to the governor to lead the party in the race against Boxer. Then Arnold hand-picked one of his friends, Bill Jones, to have the honor of challenging Boxer. But once Jones got past the primary, his campaign never got traction. While Jones didn't have any major flaws as a candidate, there was nothing about his candidacy that stood out enough to shake up the race. Worse still for Jones, Bush was at the top of the ticket that year and John Kerry was virtually guaranteed to carry California from the get go. Thus, Boxer would beat Jones handily.
In 2010, with the anti-Obamacare winds at their backs, Republicans were hopeful once more that they could take out Boxer. Out of a combative three-candidate primary between former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Rep. Tom Campbell, and businessman Chuck DeVore. While Campbell, the most liberal of the three on abortion and gay rights, touted polling that showed him having the strongest chance of winning against Boxer, GOP voters would ultimately pick Fiorina, who had accumulated star power through her gender, business experience and successful battle with breast cancer.
Despite being endorsed by Sarah Palin and having conservative views on most issues, Fiorina was not a particularly weak candidate by most measures. Although liberal groups recruited disgruntled former HP employees to complain about Fiorina's management style, she ended up doing no worse against Boxer than mega-rich Meg Whitman did against Jerry Brown in the governor's race that same election. Fiorina polled in the low forties throughout the campaign with Boxer usually tied or a few points ahead. It was the large pool of undecideds that overwhelmingly went for Boxer in the end. What happened?
It was minority voters, many of whom waited until the very end to register their choice, who handed another victory to Boxer. Here, Fiorina's biggest problem was that she had to run within the now-defunct closed primary system, and therefore she had to pander to the anti-immigrant sentiments of inland Republicans. Therefore, by the time the primary was over, Fiorina had two strikes against her in the general election with centrists and minorities.