Congress, legislative and statewide races up for grabs

Could Phil Angelides’ loss be other Democrats’ gain?

With many people now writing off the governor’s race as uncompetitive, attention has shifted to down-ticket, initiative and Congressional races. However, Democrats say the new focus has little to do with Angelides and more to do with the several unexpectedly tight races.

“We aren’t shifting anything,” said Carroll Wills of the California Professional Firefighters, who have been longtime Angelides supporters. “To the extent that we’re doing anything, we would characterize it as an additional effort.
“We’re all in for Angelides,” Wills added.

These “additional efforts” among both the Democratic Party and their labor supporters are going into a wide variety of races. At the Congressional level, tight races are good news for Democrats. The most attention has gone to Charlie Brown’s effort to knock off Rep. John Doolittle, R-Sacramento, and Jerry McNerney’s race against Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy. Both of these were supposed to be Republican cakewalks, but gradually have shifted into the toss-up category.

Unseating Pombo has been a goal for a variety of Democrats. In the last couple weeks, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $215,000 on independent ads against Pombo, according to the Federal Election Commission. After largely ignoring these raises early–especially in McNerney’s case, where they threw their early support behind another candidate in the Democratic primary–the DCCC moved both onto their “Red to Blue” high-priority list, along with Francine Busby’s race against Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-San Diego.

Another group, Majority Action, spent $100,000 on a cable-TV buy to lambaste Pombo for his vote against stem-cell research. At least two other groups are also running anti-Pombo ads, forcing the National Republican Congressional Committee to invest $650,000 in ads to defend the seat.

While Schwarzenegger is a popular Republican in an otherwise mostly blue state, he’s had a chilly relationship with some California GOP congressmen–mainly Pombo, with whom he had a snarky letter exchange over the issue of offshore drilling earlier this year. Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for the DCCC, said she didn’t think his strength was going to necessarily help other Republicans.

“If you’re coming from the perspective that the governor’s race is not really competitive, that’s yet another reason for Republicans to stay home,” she said.
McNerney’s campaign also has been receiving significant numbers of new volunteers, according to spokesman Yoni Cohen. But he denies that these are coming at the expense of Angelides or other Democrats.

“We don’t have people coming to us saying, ‘I used to work for so-and-so and now I want to work for you,'” Cohen said. “We have people coming and saying ‘This race is getting tight and I want to help.'”

Jim Lewis, spokesman for the California Building Trades Council, said that his group hasn’t made any specific decision to transfer efforts into these Congressional races, but he did note, “We’re certainly encouraging our members and our allies in the districts to get involved.”

At the statewide level, however, close races are bad news for the Democrats. Chief among these is the lieutenant governor’s race. Despite almost being elected state controller four years ago, many Democrats dismissed Republican Tom McClintock early on as too conservative to win a statewide race in California. But McClintock has run surprisingly strong against John Garamendi.

Another Democrat in a tight race is John Chiang, who is running for controller against Tony Strickland. In the last few days he’s gotten $458,000 for radio ads and other help from the Working Californians independent-expenditures committee, which is supported by the firefighters and prison-guard unions, among others. Prior to that, Working Californians had spent money only for Angelides, to the tune of just under $350,000 in September and October.

Though there are a dearth of competitive legislative races, both parties are spending big money on the few competitive races that do exist. Democrats are hoping to pick up seats in the Assembly, while Republicans are optimistic they may reclaim the Orange County Senate seat now held by Sen. Joe Dunn, D-Garden Grove. “The conventional wisdom is that Schwarzenegger is running strong and that California is bucking the trend,” said California Democratic Party spokesman Roger Salazar. “What we’re seeing is California Democrats picking up seats.”

Secretary of state filings give a pretty good indication of what seats Democrats are focusing on. Since October 21, they have poured in-kind donations to a half-dozen close state legislative races: $140,000 to Assemblywoman Nicole Parra, D-Hanford; $200,000 to Lou Correa, who is taking on Lynn Daucher for Joe Dunn’s vacated Senate seat; $110,000 to Cathleen Galgiani, who is running against Republican Gerry Machado to replace her old boss, Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews, D-Tracy; $114,000 for Terry Coleman, who is challenging Assemblyman Guy Houston, R-Livermore.

But the two GOP legislators the state Democrats may be most keen an getting rid of are a pair of Southern California Assembly women: Shirley Horton, R-Chula Vista, and Bonnie Garcia, R-Cathedral City. They gave a whopping $227,000 to Horton’s Democratic opponent, Maxine Sherard. Garcia’s opponent, Steve Clute, has gotten $182,000 in the last few days. Garcia has come under fire recently for telling a group of high-school students that she wouldn’t kick Schwarzenegger “out of bed.”

Contact Malcolm Maclachlan at

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