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Prop 8 Ruling Barely Registers on Top-of-the-Ticket Races in California

California politics got a shot in the arm last Wednesday with the ruling from a federal court in San Francisco striking down Proposition 8, the 2008 voter initiative making gay marriages unavailable in the state. In a controversial ruling, Judge Vaughn Walker held that “gender no longer forms an essential part of marriage; marriage under law is a union of equals.” The decision was met with wild cheers by supporters of same-sex marriage, but others saw Walker rejecting “the will of the people” and overturning “a family structure that historically (and biologically) best serves children.”

It’s a decision likely to be appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court. But the ruling was greeted reluctantly on the campaign trail, where the candidates for California governor and U.S. Senate are treading carefully on a hot-button issue likely to inflame passions at the grassroots.

In the governor’s race, Attorney General Jerry Brown hailed the decision as “great news” on Twitter, and he called on his Facebook fans to fly rainbow flags in solidarity. And as the state’s highest law enforcement official, Brown urged Judge Walker to rescind the ruling’s stay of implementation so that same-sex marriages could resume immediately. But the press office for Republican Meg Whitman, Brown’s billionaire rival for the governor’s mansion, just quietly released a statement affirming that “the candidate supports Proposition 8.” In the Senate race, incumbent Democrat Barbara Boxer put out a press release praising the decision as “a step forward in the march toward equal rights.” Meanwhile, GOP Senate candidate Carly Fiorina dismissed the court’s ruling and said simply that the voters had “spoken clearly” at the ballot box.

And that, in a nutshell, is the most exciting debate we’ve had at the top of the ticket since the California primaries wrapped up in June. It’s too bad, too, since one or two more 7.2 magnitude earthquakes may plunge the once-Golden State into the Pacific.

As is always the case, California is once again deadlocked in a budget stalemate with the deficit now sitting at about $20 billion and growing. Budgets are supposed to be submitted in June and signed into law by the governor. But that never happens, year after year. The state runs essentially on autopilot, borrowing until it runs out of money, and then some new gimmicks are cooked up to keep the house of cards standing until the next year. The Great Recession has put a massive crimp on that method, of course, and the quantity and quality of public services across the state has suffered. Unfortunately, neither candidate Jerry Brown nor Meg Whitman has said much about this. The pre-Labor Day months are the downtime anyway, but this year’s campaign would be a groaner even without the epic silence on the most pressing issues to Californians.

Meg Whitman, for example, has already spent roughly $100 million and she’s still struggling to find a coherent message. Especially rough going has been her disastrous flip-flopping on immigration. Having at one time called for a compassionate approach to the issue, she switched to a hawkish stance in the primary, ultimately defeating challenger Steve Poizner who had eroded her numbers with a tough-on-borders platform.

Now, though, Whitman’s being hammered by Latino activists for her clumsy efforts at Hispanic outreach. Whitman’s grand opening of a campaign office in East Los Angeles was greeted by a storm of angry protesters. And during an interview on the John and Ken Show, Whitman defended her immigration position by saying she would “stand with Arizona” in its battle to defend its tough new SB 1070 legislation.

The problem is that Whitman’s campaign bought Spanish-language ads and billboards up and down the state attacking Arizona’s law and California’s 1994 Proposition 187. However, in a late-July interview on America’s Morning News Whitman said: “I would let the law stand for Arizona.” You can’t have it both ways, of course, and John and Ken hammered Whitman for her campaign’s inconsistencies. According to the Los Angeles Times:

The interview was combative and tense. Whitman danced around many of the hosts’ questions, such as why geography and size make Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigration unworkable in California, or why she is running ads about Latino children but not those of other ethnicities.

“Why don’t you make all your positions clear in all languages? That’s all we’re asking,” said co-host John Kobylt, adding that she should translate her billboards into English. “Put those in English-speaking Orange County,” he said.

Whitman’s missteps are hardly trivial. Despite her record spending, the campaign is slightly trailing Jerry Brown in the polls. The Hispanic voting bloc turned out for Democrat Barack Obama over Republican John McCain by a whopping 3-1 ratio in the 2008 presidential election. But luckily for her, Democrats are suffering from an enthusiasm gap this year, in both the general electorate and the Latino community (so lower turnout could help the GOP). And Jerry Brown has confessed that Whitman’s money totals have caused a “little stress” on the Democratic side. And Brown doesn’t seem to be helping himself greatly in the race for cash (another sign of an enthusiasm gap), where he’s said to be running a record tightwad campaign with “no cost to too small to avoid.”

The irony is that it may not matter that much. If Whitman wins, she’s unlikely to govern all that differently from GOP Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (the state budget autopilot will likely continue under a Whitman administration). Voters looking for a tea party candidate won’t find it in the former eBay CEO, and it’ll be up to the voters to pass a ballot initiative designed to reform the state’s budgetary process.

And that means that the results for the California Senate race have the potential to bring more lasting political change. Not much has happened in the race since the primaries closed. Even bored pollsters are reduced to asking respondents whether Barbara Boxer or Carly Fiorina has the better hairdo. But California’s  Senate race is a toss-up and a Republican pickup in California is crucial to the party’s chances of retaking the Senate majority in November (Republicans need 10 seats for the majority and Larry Sabato has the GOP picking up 7 right now).

A Fiorina win in California might signal a new GOP competitiveness in the once-Golden State, and could trigger a more lasting shift toward a political-economy of fiscal responsibility among the political class. And if the GOP’s muted response to Judge Walker’s gay marriage ruling is any guide, it’s pretty clear that — despite the social hot buttons — the state’s tectonic shifts will be shakin’ over economic issues well through the next couple of political cycles.