WASHINGTON – Little noticed in this month's election was that the nation's third biggest vote getter, behind only President Bush and John Kerry, was Sen. Barbara Boxer (search), a fiery California Democrat who proudly wears her liberalism on her sleeve.
In a campaign year when the GOP picked off most of its Democratic targets, Boxer sailed to a third Senate term Nov. 2 with 6.4 million votes, 200,000 more than Kerry got in the state. Ralph Nader's total for the country: 407,000 votes.
Boxer crushed former California Secretary of State Bill Jones by 20 percentage points and scored a bigger share of the electorate than Democrat Dianne Feinstein (search), the state's senior and more popular senator, got in her last election.
This from a San Francisco Bay Area liberal who's made a habit of exasperating the GOP, whether taking on the Pentagon over a $7,600 coffee pot — a fight she waged as a junior congresswoman two decades ago — or leading opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (search).
"She's certainly one of the most liberal senators in the country, and one that Republicans love to hate," said Ken DeBow, a political scientist at California State University, Sacramento. "And they can't come close to touching her."
Boxer's success has several explanations: California's electorate leans stubbornly Democratic, even as voters nationwide hand victories to the GOP. The state Republican Party has a small pool of talent from which to draw candidates despite the success of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. And Boxer herself has honed her skills as a campaigner through two previous, much tougher Senate races.
Her huge victory is all the more noteworthy because it came in the first statewide race since Californians recalled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican, a year ago.
Many Republicans argued that the recall portended a shift toward the GOP in California. Virginia Sen. George Allen, head of Senate GOP campaign committee, predicted Jones could beat Boxer because "it's a whole new terrain there, a whole new ball game with Governor Schwarzenegger."
Boxer said she was consciously trying to prove that argument wrong.
"After the recall, I knew that I was carrying on my shoulders an enormous responsibility to make the point that a Democratic candidate could win, could win resoundingly, and that Arnold Schwarzenegger's election would not mean the end of Democratic candidacies," she told reporters this week.
"That's why you saw how hard I was working. And people kept saying, 'Well you're going to win, you're going to win.' But we had to win resoundingly, we had to, I had to," she said. "It wasn't about me. It's way bigger. It was about the issues I believed in, it was about Democratic candidates in the future."
Boxer made her point, and in the wake of her victory, Schwarzenegger increasingly appears to be the exception, not the rule, in California politics, according to one analyst.
"While Arnold is wildly popular, he's hardly the party standard-bearer," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at California State University, Sacramento. "People view him as not a politician."
As for Boxer, polling figures showed she was potentially vulnerable to a GOP challenge, said Mark DiCamillo, director of the nonpartisan California Field Poll. In the months leading up to the election, she never reached 50 percent or above when voters were asked whether they were inclined to re-elect her.
But the challenge never came. Even after Schwarzenegger's election proved a moderate Republican could win statewide in California, the GOP nominated a social conservative whose views on issues like abortion and guns put him to the right of most California voters.
Jones struggled from the beginning, raising so little money he was never able to air even one television commercial, considered a must for reaching voters in sprawling California.
Boxer amassed a $16 million warchest, campaigned around the state and bought upbeat television ads touting her support for health care and abortion rights. She finished with 58 percent of the vote in a state where Democrats make up 43 percent of registered voters (35 percent are Republicans and 18 percent are independents).
"Originally I think she represented the blue counties in California as somebody who was very popular in the Bay Area, and she's grown and become more popular in other parts of the state," Los Angeles Democratic consultant Bill Carrick said. "She has become an increasingly formidable political figure."