Congress Gets Turn at Polls

Posted March 1, 2004 at 6:46pm

The first House and Senate primary elections of 2004 are being held today in California, Ohio and Maryland.

Most of the races are ho-hum affairs, overshadowed by the presidential primaries and, in the Golden State, a variety of contentious state and local contests.

California features a competitive GOP Senate primary to determine who will take on Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) in November, plus two hard-fought, open-seat House primaries. Ohio and Maryland are not expected to produce any surprises — or any new Members — this year.

Still, there are some interesting things to watch today, including what will be the first test of whether there is any anti-incumbent sentiment at all brewing in the electorate, how long California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) coattails extend, and whether Cleveland-area voters will punish Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) for his protracted long-shot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

California Senate: Who Are These Guys?

Pity the poor Republican Senate candidates in California. Here it is, primary day, and still no one knows who they are.

“It doesn’t matter what the hell we do — we can’t get arrested,” said a Republican operative working for one of the contenders.

Just around the time the Golden State Senate race was beginning to take shape last summer, Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) entered the gubernatorial recall election, causing an international — and long-lasting — media riot. Schwarzenegger won and has been dominating the political headlines ever since.

Whatever oxygen might have been expected to be left for the Senate race — even with a primary whose winner would be an obvious underdog to Boxer — has been choked by other political events, including:

• a stifling state budget deficit, and Schwarzenegger’s campaign for two ballot measures designed to cope with it;

• a contentious, down-to-the-wire mayoral election in San Francisco that resulted in a runoff;

• a Democratic presidential contest that has been more unpredictable than anyone imagined;

• ongoing fallout in California from President Bush’s immigration proposal; and

• gay marriage.

“It’s been truly remarkable, the lack of coverage of this Senate race,” said Kevin Spillane, a consultant for former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, one of the four leading candidates in the GOP primary.

What’s more, none of the candidates — Marin, former Los Altos Hills Mayor Toni Casey, former California Secretary of State Bill Jones and former state Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian — has raised a significant amount of money, meaning their faces have barely been seen on TV ads. Whoever wins the primary is likely to emerge broke.

With so little attention being paid to the primary, Jones, a three-decade veteran of state politics who has benefited from endorsements by Schwarzenegger and former Govs. George Deukmejian (R) and Pete Wilson (R), is the frontrunner by default. A Field poll released late last week showed Jones preferred by 31 percent of the poll respondents, Marin by 9 percent, Kaloogian by 8 percent and Casey by 6 percent, with 41 percent undecided.

Most tellingly, half of those polled said they did not have enough information on Jones to make a sound judgment about him, and 70 percent said they did not know enough about the other three candidates. Which means that late-deciding voters, who frequently break for the freshest faces, are more likely to vote for Jones simply because they know him better.

Dan Allen, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said that contrary to conventional wisdom, the low profile of the GOP primary could wind up helping the nominee against Boxer.

“When you don’t have the media spotlight on you 24 hours a day, you’ve had our candidates focus on building their grassroots organizations, which is only going to help them in the general election,” he said.

But despite Schwarzenegger’s extraordinary success and renewed vigor in the state GOP, the Republican Senate nominee is likely to be a heavy underdog to Boxer, who had $5.3 million in her campaign account as of Feb. 11. The Field poll showed Boxer leading Jones, 48 percent to 38 percent, in a general election trial heat.

California House: Drugs and Butter

The phenomenon of anonymity hasn’t been quite so severe in the Golden State’s 53 Congressional districts. But because the districts were drawn to strongly favor one party or the other, the only two races of note — and the ones that have generated the most heat — are open-seat primaries: a Democratic contest to replace Rep. Cal Dooley (D) in the Central Valley, and a Republican battle in the Sacramento area to succeed Rep. Doug Ose (R).

Both primaries have turned nasty in the final days, none more so than the Democratic race to replace Dooley featuring his former chief of staff, Lisa Quigley, and former state Sen. Jim Costa (D).

Costa, a 24-year legislative veteran, entered the race as the prohibitive favorite. But Quigley, tapping her contacts from a decade and a half on Capitol Hill, has stayed competitive financially and has wailed away at Costa’s record, casting him as a captive of special interests. She has also sought to portray herself as more in tune with the needs of the agricultural district’s working- and middle-class families, as the mother of two children.

Costa has been unafraid to parry, noting that Quigley has lived in Washington, D.C., for the past 15 years, boasting about his achievements, and racking up far and away more endorsements from high-profile state Democrats. But the race turned nastier still when, in the last week, Quigley sought to capitalize on two embarrassing incidents in Costa’s past: His arrest for soliciting a prostitute in 1986, and the confiscation of drug paraphernalia in his home in 1994. Quigley ran ads about these events, and challenged Costa to say whether he had used drugs since 1994.

The Fresno Bee, which bolstered Quigley’s campaign by endorsing her last month, rescinded the endorsement Friday.

“We thought Lisa Quigley would offer voters more than simply calling for drug tests for her opponent,” the newspaper wrote. “Sadly, we were wrong.”

Quigley replied: “The Fresno Bee is going to do what The Fresno Bee is going to do. The fact is that everything in these ads [about Costa] came from headlines and from public record. It reflects a pattern of conduct that does not characterize the values of Valley families.”

The primary winner is expected to face state Sen. Roy Ashburn (R), a former top aide to House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), in the general election. The Democrat would be favored, but some Republicans hold out hope that Ashburn can pull a surprise — particularly if he’s well-funded, and if the Democratic nominee emerges from the primary damaged, as appears increasingly likely.

Meanwhile, in the 3rd district Republican primary, three strong contenders are plugging away, with the final result hard to predict. Both conservative state Sen. Rico Oller and real estate developer Mary Ose — the incumbent’s sister — are expected to spend upwards of $1 million on the race. Former California Attorney General Dan Lungren will spend close to $600,000 in a race where all three candidates are boasting of their conservative bona fides.

Republicans are expected to hold the seat regardless of who emerges from the primary, though Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.), who represents an adjoining district, said he believes investment consultant Gabe Castillo (D) can be competitive in the fall.

Most other California House primaries are foregone conclusions, though two bear watching: The Republican primary in the Orange County-based 46th district, where colorful former Rep. Bob Dornan is challenging Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, and the Democratic contest in the 12th district in the western part of San Francisco, where 76-year-old Rep. Tom Lantos is facing a surprisingly tough challenge from 27-year-old lawyer Ro Khanna. Both incumbents are favored to prevail, however.

Ohio: Long Shots Dream

Today the Buckeye State has a number of competitive Congressional primaries to sort out for general election races that will be far less so.

Nonetheless, Democrats are thrilled that for the first time in about 40 years they are fielding at least one challenger in every Republican-held seat. By contrast the GOP, which controls 12 of Ohio’s 18 House seats, has no one to run in two of the Democrats’ districts.

“It’s good to have a full slate,” conceded Chris McNulty, the Ohio Republican Party’s executive director.

But all the districts have become solidly more Republican or Democratic through redistricting, making it harder to find challengers, McNulty said.

In the case of the 6th district, where Rep. Ted Strickland faces Diane DiCarlo Murphy in the Democratic primary, McNulty laments that the GOP has no standard-bearer to take on the winner in November.

“We just couldn’t get it done,” McNulty said, adding that the party tried to recruit half a dozen candidates to no avail, as the long Appalachian district does not offer one major city from which a challenger can build a base.

Strickland has been a prime GOP target in the past but is favored to defeat Murphy, a teacher who also serves as volunteer treasurer for former Rep. Jim Traficant’s (D) defense fund.

Republicans have basically written off the urban 11th district, thereby assuring Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D) a fourth term in her Cleveland-based hub.

The GOP hopes to expand its dominance of the delegation by knocking off Rep. Marcy Kaptur, dean of the state’s Democratic delegation. Lucas County Auditor Larry Kaczala, who is in a three-way primary today, is the party favorite.

The 9th district — which includes Toledo — remains a Democratic stronghold, however. Kaptur won re-election with 74 percent of the vote in 2002, despite being drawn into a new district, and Al Gore carried the area with 55 percent of the vote in 2000.

While there has been much daydreaming about knocking off Kucinich in the 10th district, McNulty admits that is a long shot at best.

“The more people get to know him and his positions, the better chance we have of [taking his seat] but still, it’s a tough district,” McNulty said.

Four Republicans and one Democrat are on the primary ballot today along with the former Cleveland mayor who is on a quixotic bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. While Kucinich captured 74 percent of the vote in 2002, Ed Herman, a realtor who interrogated al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan during his service in the Army’s Intelligence Corps, hopes his questioning of Kucinich’s commitment to his constituents has put a chink in the former wunderkind’s armor.

For their part, Democrats hope one of five Dems might knock off Rep. Steven LaTourette (R) in the 14th district come November. Two, Capri Cafaro and Herb Hammer, have sunk considerable sums of their own money in the hopes of prevailing in today’s primary.

Cafaro, who is only 26 but stands to inherit a shopping center fortune, has contributed more than $172,000 to her campaign. Herman, a millionaire and head of GLT Products, has put $190,000 into his effort. A third candidate, state Rep. Ed Jerse, is viewed as having the best chance of defeating LaTourette because of his work in the Legislature and accolades from both the Plain Dealer and the Akron Beacon Journal.

Both main Senate candidates, incumbent Sen. George Voinovich (R) and state Sen. Eric Fingerhut (D), have primary hurdles to clear before November too. Voinovich faces John Mitchel, a retired Air Force officer who has twice run for Congress and once as a Reform Party candidate for governor. Fingerhut must first beat Norbert Dennerll Jr., a former Cleveland City councilman, before he can continue his uphill battle to replace Voinovich.

Maryland: Free Pass in the Free State

Two potentially interesting primaries involving the state’s two GOP House incumbents never quite materialized.

In the 1st district, where Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R) is a constant target for conservatives, state Sen. Richard Colburn (R) was never able to mobilize national conservative groups that have opposed Gilchrest in the past and didn’t raise much money. At the other end of the state, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R) appears to have a comfortable lead over Frederick County States Attorney Scott Rolle (R).

All other House incumbents are expected to cruise easily in their primaries and face token opposition in November. Today’s primary will also set up a general election match-up between Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) and E.J. Pipkin (R), a wealthy freshman state Senator.