Fears of an ailing economy may be translating into political gains for Democrats in a handful of California Congressional seats that until recently were considered safe Republican strongholds, according to strategists in both parties.
“This is all being driven by economic anxiety,” said political consultant Rob Stutzman, a Republican. “There is the perception that the Republicans have been in charge. “If they (voters) are going to be anxious and angry, then they are going to be anxious and angry at the people in charge.”
Nationally, Democrats – not surprisingly – see a tsunami of support for Democratic candidates up and down the ticket that will play out in California. “We are going to have record numbers up and down the state. What it means is that the Republican base voters are feeling like they did in 1976 — demoralized and embarrassed,” said state Democratic Party strategist Bob Mulholland.
California Republicans acknowledge the impact of the economy on the election, but contend that the Democratic upsets are less likely here, despite the swelling unemployment rate, widespread home foreclosures and other economic factors. That’s because the state’s long-standing budget deficits and economic woes have had little, if any, political impacts before in the state’s congressional elections. Incumbents maintain their traditional edge in spending.
Even if the districts stay Republican, “the fact that they are tight races may reflect a departure from the past, although nobody on our side is predicting upsets — yet,” one Republican said.
The uncertainty is real. It stems in part from the swelling number of decline-to-state voters, now over a fifth – 22 percent, or 3.5 million – of the 16.1 million registered California voters, according to the secretary of state’s Sept. 5 voter registration report. Three weeks before the election, the undecideds are starting to break – but for whom?
Nationally, a CBS-New York Times poll showed undecideds were breaking 2-to-1 for Barack Obama, and that Obama had a 14-point lead over John McCain.
Professionals in both parties believe the undecideds are critical to the election.
“You have to go after them, you have to give people a reason why they should vote for you,” said state GOP spokesman Hector Barajas. “The overarching issue is the economy, but it’s not a discussion of deficits. It’s a bread-and-butter issue–food on the table, higher gas prices, uncertainty in the housing market.”
“The question is what impact it (the economy) will have on the independent voters,” said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the Target Book, which tracks legislative and congressional campaigns. “If they have in the past reliably voted Republican, then is this the year they want to send a message and vote Democratic?”
“They are looking for someone at the top to blame. If that happens, there could be surprises, especially if they (challengers) have money to spend campaigning,” he added.
The Republicans, who typically have about four dozen major electoral headquarters around the state, established 77 sites this year, at least in part to help boost the party’s ground game in the teeth of the political fallout from the economy.
GOP and Democratic election watchers say three districts are too close to call, including the most closely watched race in the nation, the race for the 4th Congressional District northeast of Sacramento. There, state Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, faces Democrat Charlie Brown for the seat vacated by Rep. John Doolittle, who resigned amid a lobbying scandal. The district traditionally has been among the most Republican in the state, but Brown earlier made a serious challenge against Doolittle, and the fact that the race is close is raising danger signals among Republicans.
In the race for the 11th C.D. east of San Francisco, freshman Democrat Jerry McNerny – he defeated veteran Republican Richard Pombo in 2006 – faces former state Assemblyman and state tax appeals board member Dean Andal of Stockton. Poll numbers are disputed. The largest newspaper in the area, the Stockton Record, has endorsed McNerny.
The third contest is in the 46th Congressional District in Orange County, where incumbent Republican Dana Rohrabacher faces Huntington Beach Mayor Debbie Cook.
According to GOP sources, internal polling shows the difference between Rohrabacher and Cook, the mayor of Huntington Beach, to be within the margin of error, although Rohrabacher has heavily outspent Cook. Hoffenblum believes Rohrabacher faces “possibly the strongest Democrat to run against him since the current district lines were drawn in 2001.”
Two other tight races are on the national Democrats’ watch list.
The 26th Congressional District in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, where incumbent Republican David Dreier, a power in Congress for years, faces Democrat Russ Warner, a magazine distributor with a son in Iraq. Dreier has survived difficult elections before.
The 52nd C.D. in San Diego also is hotly contested. There, Duncan D. Hunter, the son of Republican incumbent Duncan Hunter, confronts a strong challenge from Mike Lumpkin, a former Navy SEAL commander—a powerful credential in an area with deep Navy roots. Hunter, also has military credentials: He is a captain in the Marine Corps reserve. Another San Diego-area district may also be in play: the 50th C.D. where incumbent Brian Bilbray won the seat in a complex electoral dance following the forced departure of Randy “Duke” Cunningham in a corruption scandal.
In the 45th District, Republican Mary Bono Mack – the widow of the congressman and celebrity Sonny Bono — faces former Assemblywoman Julie Bornstein. Consultants in both parties believe the district is likely to stay in Mack’s hands, but Bornstein has been gaining attention with Mack’s refusal to debate her in public.
But Bornstein hopes the large number of undecideds and Democratic registration may even things out.
“There has been a ton of Democratic registration and a huge amount of DTS (declined to states). I think this will be a very good thing for us,” said Bornstein campaign spokesman Walter Ludwig.
Hopes among the candidates for significant financial support from national congressional campaign sources many not pan out.
The strapped National Republican Congressional Committee, which at the end of August had $14 million in the bank, compared with $54 million for the Democrats, last week took out an $8 million loan to fund races in the final days of the campaigns. With scant resources, the fight for dollars is intense.
GOP insiders believe some funds may flow to Rohrabacher in the 46th C.D., but that money for any of the others is problematic. Democrats declined to say whether Cook would get last-minute cash from national Democrats.
Candidates in tight races often get help from the top of the ticket, but that is unlikely in California: U.S. Sen. John McCain and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, focusing on battleground states, do not plan campaign swings through the state before Election Day, according to Republican sources.
Added to the inter-party struggles fueled by the economy is a hint of intra-party struggles, too.
The Fresno Bee reported this week that a group of local GOP members were unhappy with congressional representatives of their own party, including Rep. George Radanovich, who was elected in the 1994 GOP wave. Der Manuel, in an Oc
t. 5 commentary on the Flashreport web site, wrote that “the only real strategy we center-right, small-government conservatives have now is to step up and challenge Republican incumbents who have served longer than 10 years and challenge them in primary contests.” Manuel is chairman of the Lincoln Club of Fresno County.
But Democrat or Republican, it’s clear that the turmoil on Wall Street is being felt from the top of the ticket on down, from the presidential contest down through Congressional, legislative and local races across the country.
“What’s interesting about the congressional races is that there is no U.S. Senate race, no statewide race on the ballot. The very first vote is for president, followed immediately by Congress,” Hoffenblum said.
“There is internal polling out there that shows the incumbents as not being very strong,” he added. “It’s just part of the economic meltdown that we can see coming down the ticket.”
Editor's Note: Corrects and updates an earlier version to identify Duncan D. Hunter as the son of the incumbent in the 52nd Congressional District.