Brown Seeks to Buck the Odds in GOP District

Posted September 9, 2008 at 6:14pm

Democrat Charlie Brown faces an uphill climb as he seeks to top Republican Tom McClintock in the race for California’s open 4th district — among the most conservative House seats in the country.

Brown, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and the 2006 Democratic nominee who nearly ousted outgoing Rep. John Doolittle (R), is swimming upstream against a 16-point Republican registration advantage. And this time around, Brown is running not against a scandal-tarred incumbent but against McClintock, a state Senator who is perhaps the most popular Republican in California among conservatives.

Brown also has to contend with a Republican base newly energized and unified on the heels of GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) selecting Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate — and with an expanded universe of voters who participate in presidential elections but not in midterms. In 2004, 61,476 more voters showed up than in 2006, and a heavy majority of them voted Republican.

But Brown remains confident, believing this election is less about partisanship than it is about leadership. Brown’s campaign this week released an Aug. 21-24 internal poll that found the Democrat leading McClintock 43 percent to 41 percent, with 15 percent undecided.

Brown isn’t voting for McCain; his campaign spokesman, Todd Stenhouse, confirmed Tuesday after some hesitation that the former Air Force officer and local police administrator will vote for his party’s presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.). But that hasn’t stopped Brown from emulating McCain, running on his biography as a military veteran who puts country ahead of party.

“Charlie has certainly established himself in his life’s work and in his campaign as an independent-minded, district-first and country-first candidate,” Stenhouse said, echoing the “Country First” theme of last week’s Republican National Convention. “Charlie’s made an effort to conduct his campaign with the same bipartisan, problem-solving approach he expects to govern with in Congress.”

McClintock is noticeably more willing to discuss his positions on key issues, reflecting the fact that he is in sync with 4th district voters to a degree that Brown is not. On taxes, energy and abortion, McClintock toes the conservative line; Brown promotes his support for funding local projects and uses Democratic messaging about favoring middle-class tax cuts.

The McClintock campaign is also not shy about acknowledging that the Republican represents a state Senate seat in Southern California adjacent to Rep. Elton Gallegly’s (R) Republican-leaning 24th district. The 4th district encompasses the suburbs and foothills east of Sacramento.

Brown has attacked McClintock for being a carpetbagger and political opportunist, noting that the Republican doesn’t live in the 4th district, Brown’s home for more than 15 years. Brown also hit McClintock for accepting about $25,000 annually in per diem afforded to him as a state Senator to maintain a second household, despite living with his family full time in a suburb of the state capital.

But McClintock, because the politics of the district are so stacked in his favor and because he began the race so well-known and well-liked by the voters, is undaunted.

McClintock has run multiple times for statewide office, and therefore has gone before 4th district voters eight times, including his June 3 GOP primary victory over former Rep. Doug Ose, who previously held the neighboring 3rd district seat. In fact, in 2006, while Brown was garnering 127,000 votes as he came just 3 points shy of defeating an ethically challenged Doolittle, McClintock earned 154,400 votes in the district in his unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor.

McClintock beat his Democratic opponent in that race in the 4th district, although he lost the statewide contest.

In 2004, President Bush beat Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 4th district by 24 points, 61 percent to 37 percent. Republicans hold a 47 percent-to-31 percent lead among enrolled voters, according to a May 19 report by the California secretary of state. Independent voters make up 17.7 percent of the electorate and they lean conservative.

“The fact is, our voters vote for Republicans,” said John Feliz, McClintock’s chief strategist. “Things are looking up.”

The Brown campaign claims its poll suggests otherwise.

The survey polled 500 likely voters, with the sample corresponding to the voter registration breakdown of the district, according to Pete Brodnitz, Brown’s pollster.

Brodnitz said the poll’s internals tell the story of Brown’s opportunity to flip this solidly Republican district. The survey, which had a 4.4-point error margin, found Bush to have a 39 percent approval rating, compared with 53 percent prior to the 2006 election, while 67 percent of respondents said the country is on the wrong track.

In the poll, Brown’s favorable/unfavorable ratings (41 percent to 26 percent) compared with McClintock’s (44 percent to 32 percent), as did his name identification (67 percent for Brown; 76 percent for McClintock).

“He’s not a generic Democrat. He’s a unique person running on his qualifications,” Brodnitz said of Brown. “Over the last two years, Charlie has been establishing himself and what he’s about. … And people are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the GOP leadership in Washington, starting with the president.”

Feliz questioned Brown’s late-August poll, which he called outdated in any case because it was conducted before McCain picked Palin.

Republicans familiar with the district said Brown’s chance for an upset depended on a collapse of the GOP ticket that some feared was possible because of what was previously tepid support for McCain. Even McClintock, who endorsed former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) in the GOP presidential primary, has been public about the fact that McCain wasn’t his first choice for the White House, although he said he intends to vote for him.

But since Palin joined McCain on the ticket, Republican voters have come home. Feliz said he saw an immediate uptick in campaign volunteers and fundraising. McClintock has been on the radio for the past three weeks with a spot on energy and is poised to hit the television airwaves this week. The Republican is also prepared to drop more direct mail in the district — he has already dropped one piece featuring an endorsement from Ose.

Republican consultant David Gilliard, who is based in Sacramento and includes among his clients a state Assemblyman whose legislative district overlaps the 4th, said the politics of the district have not appreciably changed since the 2004 elections. The Democrats have gained in registration throughout the state and the GOP has declined, but enrollment in the 4th district has remained relatively static.

Gilliard said a Republican turnout meltdown and Brown’s ability to adequately distance himself from Obama are the keys to a Democratic victory in the seat on Nov. 4. And because of Palin, he now sees the first of those factors as unlikely to materialize.

“I now predict a very large Republican turnout in the 4th, which will end Brown’s hope for a perfect Democrat storm,” Gilliard said. “Things could always change, as they have over the last two weeks, but as long as McClintock’s campaign takes the race seriously, they should be looking at a solid victory.”