Updated: 3:03 a.m.
Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn won Tuesday’s surprisingly competitive special election for California’s 36th district, keeping the seat in Democratic hands.
Hahn defeated Republican small-businessman Craig Huey, who outperformed expectations by just making it to the runoff in the solidly Democratic district. Hahn took 55 percent of the vote with all precincts reporting by early Wednesday, compared with 45 percent for Huey, according to the California secretary of state’s office.
“Congresswoman-elect Hahn has earned the confidence of the voters of her district; tonight, she has the full congratulations of the entire House Democratic Caucus,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement early Wednesday. “We look forward to welcoming her to Congress and to working with her to make progress for the American people.”
Despite late signs that the race was tightening and questions about the strength of the Democratic turnout in a midsummer, off-year election, the race in the coastal Los Angeles County district produced the expected outcome.
The vacancy was created in early February, when longtime Rep. Jane Harman (D) resigned to become head of a Washington-based think tank. Harman called Hahn the morning of her resignation, and Hahn was in the race by noon.
This was the state’s first test in a Congressional race of its new “jungle” primary, in which the top two performing candidates from any party advance to a runoff. Hahn and California Secretary of State Debra Bowen (D) were favored to advance past the May 17 primary, but Bowen split the liberal vote with other Democrats, and Huey built a conservative coalition of support big enough to squeak past her.
The race garnered little national attention after the primary, as Huey was seen as a Republican sacrificial lamb. Unlike the special election held in New York in May, neither national party used any independent expenditures on the race.
But a controversial Web ad produced by an outside conservative group highlighted a 3-year-old issue for Hahn. The ad centered on a local TV news report that she used taxpayer dollars to pay gang members to help prevent further gang violence. The Huey campaign pushed the matter further, and the issue was the first question asked of Hahn last week in the only debate between the two candidates.
Hahn focused her cable TV ads on painting Huey as an extreme conservative, but she did not mention her party affiliation in any of the ads, despite the district’s strong Democratic tilt. The Hahn campaign instead bet on winning enough cross-party votes to make up for a low Democratic turnout.
Hahn needed presidential-level assistance in the race’s closing weeks. Obama for America ran phone banks on her behalf, and President Bill Clinton recorded an automated call asking voters to get to the polls Tuesday.
The 36th district hugs the Pacific Ocean in southern Los Angeles County. It runs from Venice Beach at the northern end, into the South Bay past Los Angeles International Airport, through the Beach Cities and inland to the population heart of Torrance, and south to San Pedro.
President Barack Obama carried it in 2008 by 30 points, but the state’s first independent redistricting process is expected to make it more viable for Republicans, as it was in the 1990s.
Hahn lost her first bid for the seat in 1998, when Harman vacated it to run for governor. Hahn went on to represent south Los Angeles on the City Council. She lost her second bid for higher office in the 2008 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor.
Hahn’s win in the House race builds on her family’s political success. Her father, Kenneth Hahn, served on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for 40 years, and her brother, James Hahn, is the only person to serve as Los Angeles mayor, city controller and city attorney. The victory follows the death of her mother on Monday.