No Obvious Frontrunner in Race for Tauscher Seat

Endorsements Begin to Matter in California Special

Posted July 22, 2009 at 6:28pm

With the finish line now clearly in view, the dynamic in the special election to replace former Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) hasn’t changed much over the past few months. Three Democrats have plausible paths to victory, and another candidate or two could be big factors in the race.

State Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan (D), state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D) and Lt. Gov. John Garamendi (D) remain the frontrunners in the Sept. 1 all-party primary, and whoever finishes first will be the overwhelming favorite in the runoff two months later.

“I still think it’s a tossup,— said Chuck Carpenter, the chairman of the Contra Costa County Democratic Party, who has endorsed DeSaulnier. “It’s whether you get your votes out or not.—

No public polling has been released in more than two months, though the top campaigns insist that they are best-positioned to win. Anthony Woods (D), an Iraq War veteran who has attracted national attention because he was dismissed from the Army after challenging the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell— policy for gays and lesbians serving in the military, is bidding to join the top tier of candidates and may have enough money to do so.

If there’s an irony in the race to replace Tauscher, who took a top post at the State Department after representing her East Bay district for 13 years, it’s that the three leading contenders were all embarking on new endeavors when the Congresswoman decided to leave. Garamendi was running for governor, DeSaulnier had just moved from the state Assembly to the Senate, and Buchanan had just won a hard-fought and expensive open-seat Assembly race.

All talked about the “unexpected opportunity— that presented itself after Tauscher’s nomination, and all have been unapologetic about changing course.

“With respect to the issues I care deeply about, those issues are probably going to be solved in Washington, D.C., rather than in California,— Buchanan said in an interview Wednesday.

Still, Buchanan’s decision to seek the Congressional seat especially rankles some Democrats, because she won a Republican-held Assembly seat last fall in a bitter contest that cost the candidates, parties and interest groups a combined $5.5 million. If Buchanan is elected to Congress, Democrats will have to fight hard to hold her legislative seat.

“There are people who are annoyed about it,— a Democratic insider in Sacramento said.

One of those is DeSaulnier, who said in a recent interview that he campaigned vigorously on Buchanan’s behalf last fall.

“It’s a little frustrating to help her achieve name ID and then have that turned against you,— he said.

In the end, though, talk about Buchanan’s quick turnaround is an insider’s game that shouldn’t have any bearing on the primary result. If anything, the fact that Buchanan just came through a tough race could help her: No other candidate has been in a close election so recently, and she still has a grass-roots operation that’s largely intact.

But the other leading Democrats also have undeniable assets. Garamendi, who has been in local and state politics for more than three decades and has won three statewide elections, is the best-known candidate among the broad electorate.

“I’m very happy with where things are right now,— Garamendi said Wednesday. “I remain very well-known and very well-thought-of in the district.—

In a low-turnout special election, however, name recognition may not be the most important factor. And both DeSaulnier and Buchanan are veteran officeholders as well: He served in both the Assembly and in local government; she spent 18 years on the San Ramon Valley school board. About 70 percent of DeSaulnier’s Senate district overlaps with the Congressional district; Buchanan’s district isn’t quite as closely aligned.

Garamendi has racked up some key labor endorsements in recent weeks — though DeSaulnier also has his share of union support, mostly from local unions that are probably better-equipped to put boots on the ground. DeSaulnier also has more local business leaders and elected officials in his corner than any of the other candidates — a list that includes Tauscher and Reps. George Miller (D) and Anna Eshoo (D), who represent nearby East Bay districts. (Garamendi said Tauscher should not be appearing in DeSaulnier’s literature now that she has assumed her State Department post.)

In a district that includes many wealthy communities, none of the candidates has blown any of the others away on the fundraising front. Garamendi reported raising $300,000 through June 30 and had $260,000 in the bank. DeSaulnier raised $211,000 and banked $137,000. Buchanan raised $314,000 — but that included a $250,000 check she wrote her campaign. She finished June with $179,000 on hand.

In a memo, Katie Merrill, DeSaulnier’s campaign manager, argued that because he raised more money from a larger universe of local contributors than his opponents did, DeSaulnier has the most potential to go back to his “broad and deep contributor base in the district— and raise “the nearly $100,000 each week that will be necessary to run a winning campaign.—

The top campaigns were dismissive of the others’ ability to raise significantly more than they already have. Garamendi, a rancher, said he is confident that he can raise $1 million for the race and did not discount the possibility of putting in some of his own money.

Woods, the Iraq War veteran, has also collected six figures — raising $105,000 through June 30 and banking $65,000. But he got a potentially big boost on Wednesday when the Human Rights Campaign Political Action Committee and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund endorsed him.

“Anthony Woods is an exciting candidate with a tremendous record of accomplishment,— said Chuck Wolfe, president of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund.

Those endorsements could become a major source of late cash for Woods, a West Point graduate who earned a master’s degree from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and could also help mobilize the Bay Area’s politically savvy gay community on his behalf.

But Buchanan, too, could get an important financial boost soon if EMILY’s List decides to endorse her. Buchanan said she expects to pick up the group’s endorsement within the week.

“I think Joan Buchanan is putting together a top-notch campaign,— said Jonathan Parker, the political director for EMILY’s List. “We’ve been talking to her campaign regularly and we’ve been watching this very closely, and we realize the election is only six weeks away.—

Under California law, all dozen of the candidates in the special primary will appear on the Sept. 1 ballot together. If no one tops 50 percent, as expected, the top vote-getters from each party move on to a November general election.

The leading Republican candidate in the race appears to be attorney David Harmer, and he is running a credible campaign, raising $175,000 through June 30 and ending the quarter with $145,000 in the bank. But as of May 4, Democrats had an edge in voter registration of 47 percent to 28 percent, so even if the Democratic race becomes bloody in the weeks ahead, the GOP nominee would be the longest of long shots.