Behind in the polls and even farther behind in fundraising, autism activist Elizabeth Emken, a Republican, on Monday challenged U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) to a series of debates across the state.
In a letter to Feinstein, who is seeking her fourth full term in November, Emken proposed “statewide televised debates that would focus on regional issues.” She suggested debating water issues in the Central Valley, jobs and economic matters in the Inland Empire and education topics in Los Angeles, among others.
Emken's campaign staff announced the debates proposal during a telephone news conference with reporters, shortly after a California Field Poll released over the weekend showed Feinstein leading Emken 51% to 32% among registered voters.
Former California Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring, who recently joined the Emken campaign as senior strategist, said he was “thrilled” with the poll. He said he had expected Feinstein to do better, given her high name recognition, robust campaign treasury and other "advantages."
“She’s doing better than most of the elected officials in this country,” said Feinstein consultant Bill Carrick, who dismissed Emken’s debate challenge as a gimmick of a troubled campaign.
“This is what you do when you’re down 19 points in the polls and when you have $23,000 cash on hand” and have racked up considerable campaign debt, Carrick said.
Campaign finance records show Feinstein had more than $2.6 million in the bank at the end of the latest reporting period, while Emken had $23,669.
The Emken campaign acknowledged it has a steep hill to clim,b and Nehring said it would be counting heavily on “earned media”— news stories — to boost the candidate’s low name recognition among voters. It also plans to tap into voters’ dissatisfaction with Washington and Democrat-controlled state government.
Only one in three voters knew enough about Emken to have an opinion of her, the Field Poll found, while 88% were familiar enough with Feinstein to do so.
Although the California Republican Party has endorsed Emken, it remains unclear how much that will help. As of Monday she had not yet been scheduled to speak at the party’s state convention next month, but campaign officials said the schedule still was being worked on.
One-on-one debates between the two women are unlikely, Carrick said. Feinstein almost certainly will be busy in Washington until “deep into October” and, once Congress adjourns, will be busy “talking with voters,” not Emken.
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-- Jean Merl
Photo: Susan Emken, left, and Dianne Feinstein. Credit: Emken campaign and Associated Press