Democrat Janice Hahn’s ad strategy in California’s 36th district special election has some political strategists scratching their heads.
Not only have her spots focused on her little-known Republican opponent, but in a Democratic-leaning district the Democrat doesn’t mention her party affiliation at all.
But that’s by design, her advisers say, as Hahn has been reaching out to voters in all parts of the diverse 36th district in an effort to win next week’s special election.
Turnout is expected to be very low in the midsummer contest, with no other races on the ballot. There has been no credible polling released publicly, but Hahn’s ads have signaled to some observers that the contest is more competitive than it should be. Neither national party is spending significant money on the race, another sign that it is viewed as Hahn’s to lose.
Hahn’s campaign said its strategy includes attracting some Republicans and “decline to state” voters in the Beach Cities and Torrance.
“We’ve not been running away from the fact that she’s a Democrat, but we haven’t made it a central point because people are really looking for folks who are not going to Washington to sort of be a lock-step partisan but to solve problems,” Hahn adviser John Shallman said.
The campaign has aired at least four TV ads since the May 17 open primary, when Republican Craig Huey surprisingly finished second and advanced to next week’s runoff with Hahn. With Joe Trippi as Hahn’s media consultant, all of her ads prominently mention Huey while none have mentioned the word “Democrat.”
The most recent ad slammed Huey as a direct-mail scammer. It followed a couple of ads that painted Huey as more conservative than GOP lightning rods Sarah Palin and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.).
Candidates don’t often want to give an opponent that much free name identification, but Los Angeles-based Democratic communications strategist Roy Behr said here it is probably wise.
“Their opponent has a lot of resources to get his name out. His signs are everywhere in the district,” Behr said. “In this case, it’s more important to attach negative information to his name than to worry about name ID itself.”
Shallman said there are five cable systems within the district and the campaign has run all ads on each of them.
While they’re not broadcasting that Hahn is a Democrat, they are reaching out to Democrats through direct mail.
“It’s a smart strategy,” said Steve Barkan, a Democratic strategist who worked for Hahn’s top Democratic opponent, Debra Bowen. “In a special, it’s a lot less Democratic, just based on turnout. I think it’s smart. You run to the broadest audience on TV and then you target your mail.”
Less surprising is the absence of the word “Republican” in Huey’s most recent ad, in which members of the “government” take a jar of money that two small children selling lemonade have collected. It portrays him as the nonpolitician candidate, while slamming “President Obama and Congress” for running up the debt.
Hahn and Huey are competing to replace former Rep. Jane Harman (D), who resigned in February and won with at least 60 percent of the vote since 2002. President Barack Obama carried the district with 64 percent in 2008.
The Huey campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Huey has kept his campaign afloat thanks to nearly $700,000 in personal loans. As of June 22, he had raised $144,000 from individuals and political action committees, spent more than $782,000 and had just more than $56,000 on hand.
Hahn has been raising and spending at a feverish pace, and as of June 22 her cash-on-hand and debt figures were nearly equal. She’s raised nearly $1.1 million, spent $774,000 and had $323,000 both on hand and in debt.
Shallman said the campaign is fully funded, and although Hahn isn’t able to write herself a big check, “we feel confident that we’re able to do all we can in this campaign.”
Hahn has an advantage in early vote tallies, according to figures provided to Roll Call by the Los Angeles County registrar’s office. Of the 38,696 Democratic vote-by-mail ballots issued, 14,195 have been returned; 30,512 Republican ballots were issued and 12,967 returned.
Eric Bauman, chairman of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, said the Hahn campaign has been spot-on in its voter target approach.
“In a low-turnout election such as this, reaching beyond the base is essential for success,” Bauman said. “While Hahn talks to independents, the Democratic Party is touching and connecting with the base to increase awareness and drive up voter participation by both mail and poll voters.”
Looking forward, Behr, who said he has not spoken with the Hahn campaign, said Hahn’s team may have an eye on the redistricting process as it tries to project her as a common-sense candidate, rather than only a Democratic one.
“If you look at the potential redistricting maps, there are some scenarios where her district gets much tougher,” Behr said. “So if that’s in the back of their minds, that may affect how they’re looking at it.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.