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Bilbray Plays It Cool in Midst of Tough California Race

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Port Commissioner Scott Peters (center) hopes to rebrand San Diego as a destination for young professionals. The mix of business, military and environmental interests creates a district where partisanship is a turnoff, both candidates in the race said.

SAN DIEGO — Here, in one of the most competitive House battlegrounds in the country, sit palm-tree-lined beach towns, military installations and a surf culture representative of the inseparable connection between the ocean and the area’s inhabitants. 

Reflective of this relaxed, Southern California lifestyle is Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray, a lifelong surfer who hops  on a longboard and catches waves in a recent television ad. Bilbray faces a stiff challenge from Port Commissioner Scott Peters (D) in a redrawn 52nd district more hospitable to the Democrats.

But if Bilbray is concerned about his status as a vulnerable incumbent, he’s not letting it show. During an interview Friday at his campaign headquarters on a typically temperate afternoon, Bilbray slouched in his chair and dismissed Democratic attacks against his record on clean water like he was just out of his wetsuit raving about some gnarly waves.

“I mean, I’m the best surfer in Congress, guy, come on,” the 61-year-old lawmaker said.

Bilbray, who returned for a second stint in Congress through a costly 2006 special election, is being challenged in a reconfigured district now more favorable to Democrats. He’s facing Peters, a well-funded challenger, in a district that President Barack Obama would have won by 12 points in 2008.

Outside money is pouring in, and both sides are confident, but neither party is showing its cards by releasing any recent internal polling. The only agreement is that the election will be close and that neither candidate wants to be tied too closely to his party in a district split nearly evenly between Republicans, Democrats and “decline to state” voters.

San Diego is also home to wireless technology and science research companies, and Peters hopes to rebrand the city as a destination for young professionals. The mix of business, military and environmental interests creates a district where partisanship is a turnoff, both candidates said.

“This is not a district where you put a ‘D’ or an ‘R’ next to your name and you win,” Peters, 54, said in an interview the same day.

“No one’s confusing me with Nancy Pelosi — who is a very accomplished person. I didn’t mean any criticism,” he said, referencing the House Minority Leader from California. “But people know that I am pragmatic and not the most political person.”

Bilbray had a nearly identical take on himself, citing his background as a nonpartisan Imperial Beach city councilman and mayor, followed by 10 years as a San Diego County supervisor.

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