After the census of 2000, Democrats and Republicans in the state Legislature
made a Faustian bargain, agreeing to preserve their own hides by
gerrymandering the state so resolutely, and so specifically, that it would
be impossible to ever flip seats from one party to the next. It was a
textbook example of what is wrong with politics; an example not of the
voters picking their representatives, but the representatives picking the
voters. In virtually all elections since, this theory held, with every
single seat remaining in the same party’s hands in 2004.
But, as Robert Burns once wrote, “The best laid plans of mice and men oft go
awry.” In fact, there are at least two House races in California this year
that are defying the odds, and if these two Democrats are successful, they
could help to shift the balance of power in Congress. In CA 11, incumbent
Rep. Richard Pombo is facing wind energy expert and businessman Jerry
McNerney; and in CA 04, Rep. John Doolittle is being challenged by Charlie
Brown, an ex-Republican Air Force Lt. Colonel (Ret.) who served in every
forward action from Vietnam to Operation Desert Storm.
Interestingly, these races feature some intriguing parallels. Both Pombo and
Doolittle have been dogged by corruption charges. Both have associations
with convicted ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In fact, Doolittle has refused to
return money he received directly from Abramoff, and he admitted to the
Sacramento Bee this week that his lawyers have talked with the Justice
Department about their relationship. According to the Center for Responsive
Politics, Pombo and Doolittle both have their wives on campaign payrolls.
Both are facing determined candidates who are using nontraditional means to
wage their campaigns. McNerney, a grassroots candidate who ran against Pombo in 2004 and beat a better-funded, DCCC-picked opponent in this June’s primary, knew exactly the strategy he needed to reach in upsetting the chairman of the House Resources Committee. He saw that such green organizations as the Sierra Club and the Defenders of Wildlife were assailing Pombo for his desires to drill on public lands, like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and rewrite the Endangered Species Act. He framed the campaign around the issues of energy and the environment, and used the tales of corruption to buffer this narrative. For example, he’s made a major issue out of Pombo’s use of taxpayer dollars to pay for a family vacation to various national parks. That Pombo also has sought to sell off 15 of the nation’s national parks and monuments to developers who gave campaign contributions to him just wraps the whole critique up into a nice little ball.
Brown also has struck with laser-like focus at Rep. Doolittle’s record, and
not only has nationalized the race but internationalized it. He has put up
stand-alone Web sites, like doolittlefacts.org, hammering Doolittle for his
ties to Jack Abramoff and the Northern Marianas Islands, an Abramoff client
that subjected female workers to forced abortions and sex slavery at
sweatshops that produced textiles with the “Made in the USA” label (the
islands are an American protectorate). Brown claims that Rep. Doolittle knew
about these abuses and ignored them. He has produced radio ads, blog posts,
testimonials from investigators, and basically has stuck to this issue like
a puppy to a new chew toy.
There have been virtually no independent polls on either race (last week, a
Constituent Dynamics poll showed Doolittle up by eight points). But both
Democrats have released partisan polls showing them virtually even (only
41-39 for Doolittle, a month ago) or ahead (48-46 McNerney in the most
recent poll). Pombo’s campaign manager scoffed at the findings, claiming his
internal polls showed his candidate way ahead. But the Pombo campaign
refuses to release their polls. And Doolittle won’t do so either. Meanwhile,
the president of the United States himself dropped in to California on
October 3 to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for both men, and the
National Republican Campaign Committee has pumped half a million dollars
into polling, mailers, and phone-banking for Pombo alone. The NRCC is also
providing money for the Doolittle-Brown race, despite Doolittle’s large cash
advantage. Pombo has even given out his own personal phone number in a
letter to voters asking them to call him with any questions or concerns.
And, paradoxically, this week Pombo launched a new campaign blog that you
cannot read unless you’re invited by the Pombo campaign.
These are not the actions of safe incumbents.
For some reason, very few of state political media seem to be taking these
races seriously, expecting that the gerrymander bargain worked out six years
ago will stick–that California is impervious to any kind of national
electoral wave. While there have been more articles about the races lately,
they always include the caveat of “the incumbent is likely to win.” I don’t
know what it takes, other than a certified letter, to make the media
understand that these two incumbents are scared. Clearly, McNerney and Brown
are facing uphill battles in deep-red districts (though the demographics of
CA 11, east of the Bay Area, are changing). But the warning signs are pretty
clear. And journalists appear to be missing the story of the year in
California’s political environment that is happening right under their