National bad mood puts Calif. incumbents at risk

June 23, 2010

SACRAMENTO, Calif—Congressional elections have traditionally been pretty easy on Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a four-term Democrat from Merced whose job security was never more apparent than when he sailed through the 2008 election season unopposed.
But Cardoza and a handful of his California colleagues may soon be longing for the good old days as they face tough battles to retain their seats.

A struggling economy, a rising number of registered independents and a hostile attitude toward incumbent politicians have combined to put at least seven races in play leading up to November. It’s an unusual political landscape for California, where heavily gerrymandered districts typically provide safety for incumbents and primary winners of the dominant party.

“Our message to our incumbents all along has been that it may be a very challenging election cycle, so prepare early,” said Andy Stone, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, echoing a sentiment expressed by both parties that they are taking nothing for granted this year.

The GOP believes the dismal economy may provide an opening for a rightward shift, said Rep. David Dreier of San Dimas, head of California’s Republican Congressional Delegation. “The economy fares poorly for the party in power, as long as voters see the country’s leadership as part of the problem,” he said.

Both parties are putting heft behind a diverse slate of challengers.

Democrats are targeting three of the eight Republican-held districts where President Barack Obama won a majority of votes in 2008.

Two of those races—Riverside County’s 45th District and the 3rd District, stretching from the Sacramento suburbs to the Sierra foothills—are part of the DCCC’s Red to Blue program, which provides financial and strategic assistance.

In District 3, where registered Republicans hold a slim lead, Rep. Dan Lungren of Sacramento was re-elected to a third term in 2008 with just under 50 percent of the vote. Democrats, smelling blood in the water, are backing Ami Bera, an Elk Grove physician and one of six Indian Americans currently running for Congress.

Bera raised nearly $1.4 million coming into the June 8 primary, including a flood of donations from the medical community. As of May 19, he had $300,000 more on hand than Lungren.

In District 45, Democrats are rallying behind openly gay Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet to unseat Rep. Mary Bono Mack.

Bono Mack took office in a 1998 special election to fill the vacancy left by her then-husband, entertainer Sonny Bono, who was killed in a ski accident. She has won handily in subsequent years, but the district’s Republican registration has steadily declined, from 48 percent in 2002 to 42 percent in 2009.

In addition, Bono Mack’s opponent in the primary enjoyed strong support from local tea party groups, many of whom may now flock to American Independent Party candidate and conservative talk show host Bill Lussenheide.

The Democrats’ Stone predicted the tea party will indeed keep Bono Mack’s numbers down in November.

Next-door to Bono Mack’s territory, Democrats are also eyeing the 44th District, where nine-term incumbent Ken Calvert faces a challenger who nearly beat him in 2008. However, the DCCC has yet to commit serious resources to that candidate, Corona-Norco Board of Education president Bill Hedrick.

The GOP, meanwhile, is pushing challengers who appear tailored to their particular districts—from a Vietnamese-American in an area where 18 percent of voters are Asian, to a former water board member in a region where water trumps all other issues.

Economic concerns will likely dominate the race in Cardoza’s 18th District in the northern San Joaquin Valley—an area with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.

“This is ground zero for the recession,” said Cardoza’s opponent, Mike Berryhill, a former director of the Turlock Irrigation District. “You have people who five years ago were extremely wealthy and have absolutely nothing now.”

Berryhill, of Ceres, said his familiarity with water would make him a powerful advocate for the agriculture-heavy district, where pumping restrictions have cost thousands of jobs and forced farmers to leave large tracts of land fallow.

Cardoza campaign spokesman Mike Lynch said the congressman’s own advocacy for his constituents will hold up against any challenges.

Similar issues permeate the rest of the Central Valley, including District 20, home to three-term Democratic Rep. Jim Costa.

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 17 points there, but if anti-incumbent fever runs high enough, Hanford cherry farmer and political novice Andy Vidak could give Costa his first real re-election fight.

While closely monitoring Berryhill and Vidak, the National Republican Congressional Committee has focused primarily on two other California challengers: David Harmer, who is taking on Rep. Jerry McNerney, and Van Tran, who faces Rep. Loretta Sanchez. The NRCC has tapped both men for its Young Guns candidate recruitment and training program.

By backing Tran, a Vietnamese-American and former state assemblyman, the GOP hopes to appeal to the 47th District’s large Asian population.

However, Tran will also have to woo the Orange County district’s independent voters in order to overcome the 15-point Democratic registration advantage.

Unlike his fellow incumbents, McNerney is used to fighting for his seat. The two-term congressman’s 11th District stretches from the left-leaning eastern suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area to the more conservative San Joaquin Valley, and is almost evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters.

This time around, the threat comes from Harmer, an attorney and former fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.

McNerney’s camp said his reputation as a moderate and his near-weekly visits to the district will shield him from anti-establishment ire.

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