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There is a chance no Democrat will appear on the November ballot in an otherwise top pickup opportunity in California, a state crucial to the party’s hopes of winning the House majority.
Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks’ unconventional third-party bid for Congress would be groundbreaking under California’s new election laws, and she has a realistic shot at becoming the first Independent elected to the House since 2004.
Under the state’s new top-two primary format, her decision to run without a major-party label threw yet another curveball into the race for the new Ventura-based 26th district, a high priority for both national parties.
“I wouldn’t be running if it weren’t the open primary, but I’m really enjoying being an Independent,” said Parks, who has been in elected office for the better part of two decades. “I have support from Republicans and Democrats and independents.”
Parks has been a registered Democrat and Republican and has won three terms for the high-profile but nonpartisan position of county supervisor.
A new internal poll conducted for the Parks campaign indicates she is favored to advance to the general election along with Republican state Sen. Tony Strickland, with four Democrats as the odd ones out. As the only Republican, Strickland is practically assured of moving beyond June 5.
“She’s the Democrats’ problem,” Strickland consultant Joe Justin said flatly.
Indeed, establishment Democrats are beginning to coalesce around state Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, widely seen as the most viable candidate, in an effort to avoid a splintered vote. Brownley, who lives in Santa Monica but represents a small portion of the district, entered the race after Democratic frontrunner Steve Bennett abruptly dropped out at the state party convention in February.
Bennett quickly backed Brownley, and Rep. Lois Capps (D), who represents a neighboring coastal district, endorsed Brownley on Thursday.
Parks’ polling memo from consulting firm Gorton Blair Biggs targets the leading Democrat, positing that the late entrant does not have enough time to make up for low voter recognition. Nor do David Cruz Thayne or Jess Herrera, both of whom are at less than 5 percent in a horse race.
With the possibility of no Democrat advancing to the general in a district President Barack Obama would have carried in 2008 with 58 percent, Parks is a big target for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and her Democratic opponents. Parks announced in a recent press release that a DCCC video tracker was turned away from one of her fundraisers.
“Linda Parks is a political opportunist who will say and do whatever it takes to get elected — even change her party affiliation from a Democrat to a Republican to an Independent,” DCCC spokeswoman Amber Moon said. “California voters want leaders who stand up for them, not abandon them when it’s politically expedient.”
Parks’ internal poll of 361 likely voters was taken over three days ending Feb. 28, the day before Parks changed her voter registration from Republican to “no party preference,” which was previously referred to in California as “decline to state.” Another recently passed law in California requires candidates to be listed on the ballot as the party under which they are registered.
“She’s not an Independent, she’s a Republican and has been one her entire elected career and lives in the part of the district that leans heavily Republican,” Brownley campaign manager Lenny Young said. “In a partisan race, there’s too much at stake for a Democrat to vote for a Republican.”
When asked, Parks declined to say whether she would vote for Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio) or Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for Speaker in 2013. Rather, Parks said, she would like to sit down with leadership and start a “bipartisan committee.”
The district, much of which retiring Rep. Elton Gallegly (R) currently represents, has a voter registration breakdown of 41 percent Democratic, 35 percent Republican and 18 percent with no party preference. One wild card June 5 is the role of the coinciding GOP presidential primary, which could affect turnout.
These are the first regularly scheduled Congressional “jungle” primaries in California. Allowing only the top two vote-getters from an all-party primary to advance is a format only a couple of other states have used and one that’s been criticized for tilting the competitive balance away from third-party candidates. But Parks doesn’t see it that way, noting that she wouldn’t have won either party’s nomination in a traditional primary and has a better chance now than as a third party in a general.
“I just think of this as pure democracy,” Parks said. “Anyone can run, and it doesn’t matter what party you’re in.”
Young and Brownley’s strategist, Steve Barkan, are two of only a few consultants in the state who have experience at the Congressional level in the new primary format. They worked for California Secretary of State Debra Bowen (D) in last year’s special election in the strongly Democratic 36th district, won by Rep. Janice Hahn (D).
Hahn and Bowen had been heavily favored to advance past the primary, but Bowen fell 709 votes short to wealthy Republican Craig Huey in large part because liberal Marcy Winograd (D) siphoned off more than 9 percent of the vote.
Parks’ last win came in June 2010 against Strickland’s wife, then-Assemblywoman Audra Strickland. The county GOP spent big to help Strickland, whom Parks defeated by a wide margin. There is no secret about the bad blood between Parks and the Stricklands, which gives the general election yet another storyline to watch should Parks advance.
There are currently two Independents in the Senate — Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.), both of whom caucus with Democrats — but no Independent has been elected to the House since Sanders left his seat for the Senate in 2006. Other than Sanders, Independents in the House have been scarce since the early 1950s.
“If I win, I just think it would send a great message that people are sick and tired of the hyperpartisanship that’s gridlocking Congress,” said Parks, who noted she’s a centrist and “no Bernie Sanders.”