Even though it’s likely that not a single Congressional seat will change
hands in California this fall, the Golden State may have the most to
lose–and to gain–in the Congressional elections.
With Republicans in control of Congress, members of the California
delegation chair some of the most powerful committees in all of Congress,
and, if Democrats take control of the House, those chairmen will lose their
jobs and their power.
“California’s Republican delegation has more committee chairs, and relative
power, than any other state,” says Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for the
National Republican Congressional Committee.
But if November brings the Democratic tidal wave that many political experts
are now predicting, Nancy Pelosi would become the first speaker of the House
in U.S. history to hail from California. And with her, a number of
California Democrats would be in line to run House committees.
“Is that possible that it happens? Absolutely,” says Amy Walter, who
analyzes House races for the Cook Political Report in Washington, D.C. “It’s
pretty easy to see from 30,000 feet–all of the factors are there to give
Democrats the majority.”
Walter says that 2006 could be for Republicans what 1994 was for Democrats,
when they lost control of the House for the first time in nearly 50 years.
“If you look at the empirical numbers, things for Republicans are as bad or
worse as they were for Democrats in 1994,” says Walter. “However, we still
have some months to go here. It’s not that the environment is going to get
better. It’s how well Republicans are going to be able to protect themselves
from this oncoming storm.”
If that storm does create a Democratic tidal wave, some Californians would
lose serious political clout. Currently, Californians chair some of the most
powerful committees in all of Congress. Rep. David Dreier, R-Glendora,
chairs the House Rules Committee. Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, chairs the
House Appropriations Committee. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-San Diego, heads the
House Armed Services Committee. Rep. Buck McKeon chairs the House Education
committee. Retiring Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Bakersfield, is the outgoing
chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
But any power that California might lose would be made up if Pelosi becomes
speaker of the House. Collegio says the prospect of Speaker Pelosi may
actually keep some voters in the Republican fold. “Nancy Pelosi is one of
the most ideologically liberal leaders in the U.S. House in the last 50
years. Insofar as candidates can draw a contrast between Pelosi’s record and
their own, it could move some votes. It could move some swing votes in the
While Pelosi would become the most powerful Democrat in Congress–not to
mention third in the line of presidential succession–she would not be the
only California Democrat who benefits from a changing of the guard. Many of
the current Republican chairmen are from rural parts of the state, but most
of the would-be Democratic chairmen hail from the state’s urban centers.
Among the Democrats who would likely ascend to lead Congressional Committees
are Democratic representatives George Miller (Education), Juanita
Millender-McDonald (House Administration), Tom Lantos (International
Relations), Bob Filner (Veterans Affairs), Howard Berman (Ethics), and Henry
Waxman (Government Reform).
The Democratic committee list may not hold the fiscal power of the
currently chaired by California Republicans, though they may be
more high profile. In particular, says Walter, if Waxman becomes chairman of
the Government Reform Committee, he could become a high-profile figure in
“That’s the committee that conducts the investigations,” she says. And if
Waxman, an aggressive, anti-Bush Democrat, is chairman, he could be a
persistent thorn in the side of the Bush administration.
For now, of course, all of this is hypothetical. But while Democrats are not
publicly predicting victory in November, they say they like their chances.
“We’re not really in the business of saying we can win X number of seats,
but certainly we’re seeing districts that haven’t been competitive before
are competitive this year,” said Kate Bedingfield, spokeswoman for the
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The Democrats’ growing confidence has them even keeping a watchful eye on
Republicans Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, and John Doolittle, R-Roseville. While
both represent safe Republican seats, Walter says dissatisfaction with
incumbents is so high that everyone is potentially at risk.
“It’s very easy to point fingers in a year like this because one party is in
control,” says Walter. “The kinds of candidates who are most vulnerable are
the ones who have their own baggage and haven’t been challenged in a long
time. Pombo and Doolittle fit into that category.”
Pelosi has called for investigations into both Pombo and Doolittle for what
she says are questionable fund-raising practices and ties to disgraced
lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Last year, the Citizens for Responsibility and
Ethics in Washington named Pombo one of the “13 most corrupt members of
Congress.” Pombo also has come under fire for paying both his wife and
brother as fund-raisers for his political committee.
Pombo has dismissed the charges from Democrats as overtly partisan, and
focused on trying to remove him from office in November. And Collegio says
Democrats have an extremely vulnerable candidate in Jerry McNerny.
“Richard Pombo is facing a second-tier opponent who changed 55 answers on a
nonpartisan candidate survey. If ever there’s been a candidate to define the
term ‘flip-flop’ it’s Jerry McNerny,” he says.
Doolittle is much more closely associated with Abramoff than Pombo.
Doolittle’s wife, Julie, was subpoenaed as part of the feds’ investigation
into Abramoff. Doolittle also has close ties to Brent Wilkes, a major
Doolittle donor, who was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in Duke
Cunningham’s plea-bargain agreement.
But both Pombo and Doolittle are facing relatively weak Democratic
challengers in November, and Walter says it will be up to McNerny and
Charlie Brown, respectively, to prove to that they are viable candidates.
“Brown’s ability to get his message out will be tough because he’s not going
to have the money,” she says.
Other California Republicans have been mired in scandal recently. Cunningham
was forced to resign and was sent to prison for accepting bribes in exchange
for government contracts. Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands also has been under
scrutiny for his ties to Wilkes and his handling of the Appropriations
Committee. And last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that Rep. Gary
Miller, R-Monrovia, had failed to pay taxes on more than $10 million in
real-estate sales. Miller had claimed that the sale was forced when the city
invoked eminent-domain powers, but the city denies Miller’s claims.
Collegio says while Republicans will have to fight in November, California
is simply not among the territory they have to worry about. “There is not a
seriously competitive congressional election in the state of California in
2006. I can say that categorically. There’s no place left for the Democrat
party to grow.”