Democrats See Golden Pickup Opportunities in California

As Democrats look hungrily at the eight California districts that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but are represented by the GOP in Congress, many strategists have come to the conclusion that Reps. Dan Lungren, Ken Calvert and Mary Bono Mack are the most vulnerable Republicans in the Golden State delegation — for now.

But the list of Republican targets in California remains a work in progress, one that will be affected by political events in the state and in Washington, D.C., Democratic recruiting, and, to a surprisingly large extent, early speculation over the next round of redistricting. Democrats also believe that if Obama remains relatively popular in 2010, some of California’s Congressional Republicans will choose to head for the exits rather than continue to serve in a deep minority.

“I would think in a state with 53 seats, somebody at some point may say, I’m not running again,’— said Bob Mulholland, a consultant to the California Democratic Party. “Then that seat becomes a priority.—

Because Obama did so well in California — winning 61 percent of the vote statewide and carrying 42 of the 53 Congressional districts — and because voter registration in many of those districts is trending in their direction, Democrats feel they have a serious chance to increase their 34-19 advantage in the delegation next year (including one vacancy in a safe Democratic district). Without any help from the national party, a few no-name Democrats came very close to ousting well-entrenched House Republicans last year, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is poised to do all it can to win those seats this cycle. Picking up seats in her home state will also be a priority of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“California’s unemployment rate is in double digits and the state has been hit hard by the housing crisis, yet out of touch Republican Members have repeatedly voted against measures to help save and create jobs and restore the economy,— said DCCC spokesman Andrew Stone, previewing a line of attack that will be used against Golden State GOP incumbents in the months to come.

But the theory can also be turned on its head: By largely ignoring California last year, and because Obama won’t be on the ballot in 2010, did Congressional Democrats blow a golden opportunity that can’t be recaptured? After all, Republicans are now aware that some of their incumbents are in jeopardy, and they will be mobilizing to shore up those seats.

“I think it’s facetious to say that just because Barack Obama won these districts that these Members of Congress are suddenly vulnerable,— said Jon Fleischman, a vice chairman of the California GOP.

And Joanna Burgos, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, predicted that Democrats will not be able to sustain their level of popularity, particularly in swing districts.

“Democrats have tried numerous times to challenge Republican incumbents in California, but our Members continue to succeed, even during some of the toughest cycles,— she said. “The moderate voters in these areas will not react well to Democrats’ wasteful spending, tax hikes or debt pile-on. With the economy the way it is, American families will side with fiscally responsible Republicans who will keep the Democrats accountable for their current reckless spending spree.—

Republicans just got good recruiting news of their own on Wednesday, when state Assemblyman Van Tran (R) created an exploratory committee for a possible bid against Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D) in an Orange County district that the GOP believes is becoming increasingly competitive.

“If I run for Congress, my first priority will be passing meaningful economic reforms to create more jobs and get Californians working,— the Saigon-born Tran said in a statement.

But while some Democratic strategists privately acknowledge that they may have to play defense there, for now their focus is largely on the Obama districts held by Republicans. For Democrats, the seats of Lungren, Calvert and Bono Mack present their own sets of opportunities — and challenges.

3rd District: Sacramento Suburbs

Some Democrats would dearly love to persuade Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, who is currently competing in the yet-to-be-scheduled special election to replace Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D), to challenge Lungren instead.

Lungren was held under 50 percent last year by emergency room physician Bill Durston (D), who took 44 percent.

“I think John’s a hero if he runs for [Lungren’s] seat,— said state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D) — who is not a disinterested observer, because he is also competing in the special election. “I think he picks up a seat for us there.—

A handful of Web sites have been set up to draft Garamendi into the 3rd district race, but the lieutenant governor, who recently abandoned a 2010 gubernatorial bid, isn’t biting. Peter B. Collins, a consultant for Garamendi, said Garamendi “found it flattering— that party activists wanted him to challenge Lungren, but argued that the “draft Garamendi— movement has now been taken over by people who don’t have his interests at heart.

“I believe that this is being propelled now by people who don’t want him to win— the special election, Collins said. “It’s gone from being an honest grass-roots effort to being an Astroturf effort.—

Garamendi’s camp released a poll this week showing him ahead in the race for Tauscher’s seat.

Absent a big name like Garamendi in the race — former state Treasurer and 2006 Democratic gubernatorial standard-bearer Phil Angelides has also been mentioned as a possible candidate; he did not respond to phone messages this week — the Democratic nominee against Lungren is likely to be a local officeholder who will have to work hard to build up name recognition against a well-known political entity who was first elected to Congress (from a Long Beach-based district) in 1978 and also spent eight years as state attorney general.

“There’s not a lot of Democratic electeds that overlap [with the Congressional district] up there,— said a Sacramento-based Democratic consultant. “It’s not a Democratic stronghold for folks.—

Possible contenders include Rancho Cordova City Councilman Ken Cooley, Elk Grove Mayor Gary Davis, state Assemblywoman Allyson Huber (who was just elected last fall) and Calaveras County Supervisor Steve Wilensky, who passed on the race in the previous cycle. Physician Amerish Bera, who is unknown to Democratic activists, has just filed papers to run.

“I think it’s winnable if we get the right person,— said Marilyn Sabin, who served as Durston’s chief of staff during the 2008 campaign. “I thought Bill was the right person ... If we had just had some support from the national party, we would have pulled it off. There’s only so much you can do with a shoestring campaign.—

While fending off more frequent attacks from the DCCC, Lungren has increased his visibility in the district and has stepped up his fundraising. Through March 31, he had $121,000 in his campaign account.

44th District: Riverside and Orange Counties

Bill Hedrick (D), the local school board member and teachers union official who finished 2 points behind Calvert in 2008 without any party support, is trying again, and this time the DCCC seems ready to help.

As in the 3rd district, voter registration is moving the Democrats’ way, and Hedrick has essentially kept his grass-roots operation intact. But Hedrick is an unabashed liberal, and it’s possible that even as Democratic operatives try to paint Calvert as out of touch with his district, Republicans may be able to do the same with the challenger.

But Calvert continues to have his worries. His role in a controversial high-profile local land deal continues to be scrutinized by the media, and the deal is the subject of at least one lawsuit. And Calvert now faces a Republican primary challenge from real estate broker Chris Riggs, who has railed against Congressional earmarks and told the Orange County Register recently that Calvert “is as corrupt as the day is long.—

Republican strategists do not believe Riggs can defeat Calvert, but they do think he can cause some damage that may carry over to the general election.

Calvert finished March with $115,000 cash on hand. Hedrick had just $22,000 in the bank. He has a major fundraiser scheduled for June 14. Loretta Sanchez is a co-host.

45th District: Palm Springs and Environs

For years Democrats have felt that the right candidate could make Bono Mack sweat, but they were never able to find one. This time, the DCCC is high on its recruit, Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet.

Republicans must be taking Pougnet seriously, because no sooner did he announce his candidacy last week than the NRCC launched an attack against his “fabricated economic record,— blaming the mayor for Palm Springs’ double-digit unemployment rate. But Democrats argue that Pougnet has a strong pro-business record, and they say that as a parent of two young children — Pougnet is openly gay — he connects with families in the district who are trying to make ends meet.

Compared to Lungren and Calvert, Bono Mack appears to have a far greater reservoir of goodwill with the voters to draw from. And she has inoculated herself politically to a degree in a changing district by taking moderate positions on social issues.

But Democrats will attempt to tether her to the national GOP and will argue that, since her marriage to Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.), she is not spending a sufficient amount of time in the district.

Through March 31, Bono Mack had a healthy $355,000 in her campaign account; Pougnet, who created an exploratory committee earlier in the year, had $11,000.

Future Opportunities

Democrats also see hope in the San Diego-area 50th district, where Rep. Brian Bilbray (R) barely topped 50 percent in November, and in the exurban Los Angeles 25th district, where Rep. Howard McKeon (R) has won fairly easy victories despite a fast-changing electorate. They also have a very credible challenger in the 48th district, where former Irvine Mayor Beth Krom (D) is taking on Rep. John Campbell (R) — though even the most optimistic Democrats concede that the Orange County district may be a little out of reach, especially given Campbell’s ability to fund his own campaign.

However popular Obama is come Election Day 2010, the main political event in California will be the gubernatorial contest, whose outcome is very hard to predict at this early stage. The leading Democratic contender for now is the ultimate retread, state Attorney General (and former Gov.) Jerry Brown, though San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is also a strong candidate and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa could join the race.

The Republican contest is a battle between state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and former e-Bay CEO Meg Whitman. One California-based Republican strategist said that the eventual nominee should help the vulnerable House Members.

“Calvert, Lungren and Bono will all benefit from the fact that the person at the top of the ticket is almost certainly going to be a billionaire, who will be spending money to improve the Republican brand,— this strategist said.

Uncertainty about the political future could also color California’s 2010 Congressional contests. There’s a chance the state could lose one House seat during reapportionment following the 2010 Census, and because no one knows what Congressional boundaries will look like in 2012, some potential candidates may be hesitant to run in 2010.

“We’re working off a map that’s fading in its relevance,— said Collins, the Democratic consultant.

Californians last year voted to change the way legislative districts are redrawn, putting the responsibility in the hands of a nonpartisan commission. But the politicians in Sacramento will still control the Congressional remap. That process is almost certain to take place after the legislative districts are redrawn, meaning a lot of self-interested pols will be looking to put their stamp on the new map.

State Speaker Karen Bass (D) said Wednesday that the Legislature is already “putting the infrastructure in place now— to address redistricting.

“We have a lot of friends in Congress now,— she said.