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Gerrymandered districts offer comfort to Doolittle, Pombo

If Democrat Charlie Brown gets the support of every person who casts their
primary vote for someone besides Rep. John Doolittle, R-Granite Bay, in the
4th Congressional District, he would trounce the incumbent by a 58 percent
to 42 percent margin in November.

“Sixty percent of voters voted for change,” said Brown, a former Air Force
officer.

However, 62 percent of those voters also voted for a Republican. A third of
those Republican chose Doolittle’s primary opponent, John Michael Holmes.
But Brown will face the tough task of turning those Republican votes into
Democratic ones.

A short distance to the south, Democrat Jerry McNerney could do some similar
math and predict a 65-35 drubbing over seven-term incumbent Rep. Richard
Pombo, R-Tracy, in CD 11. But this would be approximately the same score–62
percent to 32 percent–by which Pombo beat McNerney two years ago.
Democrats have made a big priority of defeating this pair of Republicans.
But despite their efforts grooming opposition candidates and touting their
ties to crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff, they might be better off creating a
Terminator-like cyborg and sending it back to 2001 to tell then-Democrats
not to accept that year’s redistricting plan.

Under the plan, many of the state’s important Democratic seats were
protected. But they also granted similar protection to several Republicans.

Now, even a seemingly vulnerable GOP congressmen like Pombo and Doolittle
appear likely to prevail in the fall. Doolittle’s district, a gigantic
rectangle that runs from the Sacramento suburbs to the borders of both
Nevada and Oregon, gives him a 48-percent to 30-percent registration
advantage.

Pombo’s district has been compared to a seahorse whose throat is defined by
what’s missing–the Democratic and Latino heart of Stockton. His primary
opponent, veteran Republican contrarian Pete McCloskey, noted that it ranged
over “four counties and three mountain ranges.” The result: a 44 percent to
37 percent registration advantage for Pombo, and a primary that saw 55
percent of voters cast a ballot for a Republican.

Increasingly, the Democratic response in such districts is to try to
nominate moderate-to-conservative candidates–with military experience if
possible. Brown fits this mold perfectly. He’s a former Republican and
retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. He co-piloted a helicopter in one of
the last major battles of the Vietnam War.

His son, Jeff, is also an Air Force pilot, and provided Brown with one of
his favorite stories to tell on the campaign. Last year, Capt. Jeff Brown
was the co-pilot of a C-130 transport plane that Doolittle caught a ride on
during a publicity tour of Iraq. Despite sitting for hours in the jump-seat
next to the pilots, Doolittle asked them no questions about their wartime
experiences–until the younger Brown introduced himself at the end of the
flight.

Democrats attempted to nominate someone with a similar resume as Brown in
the 11th. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) got behind
former Navy fighter pilot Stephen Filson. But Filson lacked McNerney’s ground-level organization, according to Wayne Johnson, president of JohnsonClark Associates and a political consultant to the Pombo campaign. McNerney also has a son in the armed forces, but is considered more liberal than Filson.

Johnson said that it appeared the DCCC has “pulled up stakes” on the race.

Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for the DCCC, denied this. The group already
has given $30,000 to McNerney, and currently is deciding which races around
the nation they want to put the most money into.

“Decisions like that don’t get made four to five months before the
election,” she said. “Four months is an eternity in politics.”

She also downplayed the effect of the pending bribery charges against Rep.
William Jefferson, D-Louisiana, which many pundits have said will make it
harder to make corruption charges stick to GOP candidates. Bedingfield noted
that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, immediately moved
to strip Jefferson of his seat on the influential Ways and Means Committee
after his case became public.

“Voters can see that Democrats handled the situation swiftly while
Republicans have done nothing but embrace the widening ethical problems in
their ranks,” Bedingfield said.

However, Johnson said that McNerney was the wrong kind of Democrat for the
district–one who is repeatedly on record for advocating tax increases. He
also discounted the argument that Pombo and Doolittle are in trouble because
they got less than 70 percent of the vote in their primaries. There is no
“magic number,” Johnson said, and he thinks that Pombo already has survived
the toughest challenge he is likely to face.

“Nobody could have gotten closer than McCloskey,” Johnson said. “He was a
media magnet.”


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