The Pacific Coast states have recently seen an uptick in support for Democratic senators who only weeks ago were thought to be in serious trouble and were behind in the polls.

In California, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer has been facing her toughest reelection campaign since 1998 against former Hewlett-Packard CEO, Carly Fiorina.

In August and early September, Fiorina had momentum on her side, and it looked as though that momentum could only grow. Most voters tend to tune into midterm elections after Labor Day, and, given the nature of this election cycle, it was a relatively safe bet that more newly-aware voters would fall into her camp

A SurveyUSA poll from August 8-11, showed Fiorina with a five point lead over Boxer. A Rasmussen poll from September 6th gave Fiorina a one point lead over Boxer, but that was the last lead that any firm has registered for the Republican Senate candidate. Over the course of September, Boxer has increased the gap between her and her opponent noticeably. A Public Policy Polling survey from September 14-16 gave Boxer 8 points over her opponent and 50 percent of the vote – the first time since January she registered that much support. In three of the most recent polls, Boxer lead has escaped each poll’s margin of error (save Rasmussen’s September 20th poll where she has a 4 point lead with a 4 point margin).

It is not so much that Boxer is surging in the polls – again she only broke the 50 percent mark once and in a single poll that could be written off as an outlier. Rather, her opponent’s support has decreased significantly. Of the four polls conducted in August, Fiorina twice received 48 percent of support among likely voters. Today, Fiorina registers between 43 and 41 percent. While most polls show independents breaking for Fiorina, as independents are breaking against incumbents all over the country, she does not pick up enough support among Democrats to be a contender in a Democrat-heavy state like California.

Further gumming up the works for Fiorina is Proposition 19, a ballot initiative that would legalize Marijuana and open it up for taxation and regulation, which is heavily supported among 18 – 34-year-olds. In that demographic, Boxer has almost 60 percent support according to the latest SurveyUSA poll (September 19-21). It is not unreasonable to expect Prop 19 to drive up the Democratic turnout in California and mute, if not neutralize, the enthusiasm gap that Republicans are counting on in most other states in November.

Boxer is not surging, Fiorina is losing support. The Republican candidate needs to improve her standing among Democratic voters in order to win this liberal state, where President Obama maintains a 57 percent approval rate (Rasmussen Reports, September 20th).

In Washington, however, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray is enjoying a traditional surge in polling numbers. This follows a rocky period that lasted for most of the summer when Republican Senate nominee Dino Rossi had momentum on his side.

Sen. Murray knew she was facing trouble in June when Rasmussen Reports, the only firm regularly polling in Washington at the time, found that her and her opponent were tied 47-47. Murray never broke a 4 point spread over her opponent all summer. A poll conducted by SurveyUSA from August 18-19 showed Rossi with 52 percent of the vote to Murray’s 45 percent. In that poll, Rossi received 11 percent of the Democratic vote and 19 percent of those who consider themselves “liberal,” more than enough crossover support to win in the general election. This was an outlier poll for sure, but a trend was confirmed when Rasmussen released a poll on August 31st that showed Rossi breaking 50 percent of the vote and beating Murray by 3 points. 

Is Rossi losing support like Fiorina? Sure, but not to the extent that Carly Fiorina is. Furthermore, Murray’s support is cresting. She has broken 50 percent in the last 4 polls taken in September. The latest CNN/Time poll (September 10-14) showed the sharpest margins at 53-44 percent for Murray. Interestingly however, in that CNN/Time poll Murray does better after a likely voter screen is imposed on respondents than she does with just registered voters, while Rossi remains steady at 44 percent. When pushed, is seems, voters break for Murray. That trend runs counter to the results that other pollsters are seeing in most of the country, where Democratic support suffers from the imposition of a likely voter screen.

Washington is not California. A SurveyUSA from September 10-12 found President Obama with a 40/56 approval rating in the state. A September 14th Rasmussen Poll showed Murray with a 52/45 approval rating, up from an August 31st Rasmussen poll that gave her a 50/49 approval. Sen. Boxer’s 48/49 approval (Rasmussen, September 20) has been a major factor in keeping the California Senate race as close as it is. There is a major ballot initiative in Washington as well, one to impose the state’s first income tax (Washington has a high sales/use tax to compensate for the lack of a progressive income tax). This initiative should increase the amount of conservative supporters going to the polls in November to vote the initiative down. It is not clear that it will have any significant added effect on the conservative-leaning electorate that is already energized.

There is still plenty of room for maneuver in this election. Sen. Murray benefits from her general approval in this state, but Washington is also not happy with the state of affairs in the federal capitol. If Rossi can successfully tie Murray to Washington D.C., he can bring her approval numbers down and, by extension, his support up. Rossi went on the air with his first negative ad last Thursday while Murray has been airing negative ads against Rossi since the beginning of August. September’s polls may be registering the impact of those ads, but the sustained nature of Murray’s surge in the polls lends credibility to a substantive bounce.

California and Washington are not supposed to be battleground states. That they are is yet another testament to this year’s anticipated “wave” election. If the GOP loses the Senate contests in these states, they will make that point in the postmortem analysis. Democrats, meanwhile, will chalk their wins up to the GOP’s “extremism” problem and say that incumbent wins in California and Washington in such an anti-incumbent year means that A) Republican candidates were not moderate enough and B) the Republican wave was not that strong to begin with. History, however, is written by the victors. If the victors are Republicans in 2010, incumbent victories on the West Coast will be cold comfort for their supporters.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com