Calvert Escapes Surprisingly Close Call

Posted November 7, 2008 at 6:31pm

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) won a ninth term last week. Barely.

The close, 3-point margin of his victory over a Democrat whom he outspent by nearly $700,000 has to have him breathing a sigh of relief — and probably has House Democrats wishing they had spent some of their $80 million in independent expenditures on his race.

Calvert, who represents the GOP-leaning 44th district, narrowly escaped a challenge from Corona-Norco School Board President Bill Hedrick (D), winning 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent. Hedrick almost ousted the incumbent despite spending only $119,000 in a district in which the Republicans hold an 8.3 percent lead in registered voters. The district includes portions of heavily Republican Orange and Riverside counties.

“We knew this was definitely going to be closer than in previous years. But it is definitely closer than we expected,” Calvert campaign spokesman Billy Essayli said on Friday.

As of the pre-general Federal Election Commission reports filed on Oct. 23, Calvert reported raising $845,000 this election cycle and spending $813,000. Hedrick reported raising a total of $150,000 for the cycle.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee attempted to recruit a viable opponent to challenge Calvert early in the cycle, but was unable to find an individual who it believed warranted the investment of party resources.

Calvert was thought to be potentially vulnerable because of a deluge of bad press he received at home over questionable land deals he engaged in and how they tied into earmarks he requested during the appropriations process. Calvert is a member of the powerful committee.

A Democratic source familiar with DCCC strategy said the committee had more attractive Republican districts to target than it had money to spend. This insider said there was no indication down the stretch that the Calvert-Hedrick contest was competitive.

“This was something that the DCCC was watching, but couldn’t afford to invest in given the number of other opportunities they had,” the source said.

Similarly, the National Republican Congressional Committee also failed to pick up on the fact that a race was afoot in the California district, according to a GOP source based in Washington, D.C.

Republican sources familiar with Calvert’s race say the Congressman won with such a tight margin for a couple of key reasons.

A California-based Republican consultant said Calvert’s campaign had no get-out-the-vote operation “to speak of,” adding that the Congressman is “extremely unpopular with the grass-roots activists who think of him as a crooked guy on earmarks and appropriations.”

This consultant said Calvert most likely prevailed because of the strong ground game run in the Orange County portion of his district by the local GOP.

Another Republican insider familiar with Calvert’s district said the county GOP in the Riverside portion of the Congressman’s district has atrophied. Riverside is a historic GOP stronghold with a strong bench of Republicans serving in local office, but sources say the county party was basically inactive in this election on the voter-registration and GOTV fronts.

Additionally, according to this Republican insider, a robocall was delivered throughout the 44th district — and other targeted California districts — around 5:30 p.m. local time on Election Day saying that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) had been elected president and that there was no need to go to the polls.

“Ken’s close race was a surprise to many, in such a Republican seat,” said Jon Fleischman, a Republican strategist and publisher of the FlashReport blog.

Essayli, the Calvert campaign spokesman, said the Congressman’s political team is still surveying the results of the contest and determining why it ended up so close.

But in the immediate aftermath, Essayli attributed the Congressman’s 3-point victory to the Democratic wave led by Obama, increased Democratic registration in the 44th district, and the ineffectiveness of the Riverside County GOP. Essayli said an uptick in Democratic registration in the geographic vicinity of the University of California at Riverside might also have aided Hedrick’s effort.

Voter registration has shifted somewhat since the 2004 and 2006 elections, when Calvert won re-election convincingly with 62 percent and 60 percent of the vote, respectively. The current voter enrollment breakdown is 42.7 percent for the GOP and 34.5 for the Democrats. In 2006, those numbers were 46.9 percent for the GOP and 32 percent for the Democrats.

Essayli did not respond directly to the analysis of some that Calvert failed to run a vigorous campaign. He said the Congressman walked precincts, ran some radio ads, and engaged in tele-town-hall meetings.

In an indication that Calvert didn’t think his race was competitive, one Republican based in Washington, D.C., said the Congressman offered to donate to his fellow GOP Members in need down the stretch of the campaign. He reported a donation of $50,000 to the NRCC on Oct. 3.

Essayli suggested that in retrospect, Calvert should have run harder.

“Was there more to do? Absolutely. But we felt like we ran a campaign,” he said.

The Hedrick campaign could not be reached for comment on Friday.