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Of 53 Races, Only 3 Offer Ray of Hope to Non-Incumbent Party's Candidates

October 15, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The congressional election isn't until Nov. 7, but the real decisions may have been made in 2001, the last time district lines were redrawn in California.

Of 53 districts in the state, only three have drawn much interest, two of those because of the ethical problems of the Republican incumbents.

And to call all three competitive could be a stretch.

"In California, we have 20 safe Republican seats and 33 safe Democratic seats" and not much in between, said Gary Jacobson, congressional scholar at UC San Diego.

Still, Democrats are hoping for electoral lighting to strike in the districts that are represented by longtime GOP incumbents John T. Doolittle and Richard W. Pombo and by recycled incumbent Brian Bilbray.

Doolittle (R-Roseville) was associated with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Pombo (R-Tracy) is the bete noire of the environmental movement and took money from Abramoff. Bilbray (R-Carlsbad) took over, after a June special election, the seat once held by Randall "Duke" Cunningham, who is now imprisoned for bribery. He previously served three terms in Congress from another district.

But if lightning is to strike, it will have to defy some daunting numbers from the past.

In four decades, Jacobson said, no Democrat has beaten a Republican in a congressional district in which Republicans held a registration edge of four percentage points or greater.

In Doolittle's district, the pro-GOP margin is 18 percentage points, in Pombo's 6 and in Bilbray's 14.

With those numbers, and their belief that neither the Iraq war nor the Mark Foley page scandal will make Republicans dump their party's candidates, Republican strategists are talking with confidence.

"California is the quietest state in the nation when it comes to congressional races," said Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Democrats, however, think that Pombo is vulnerable because of his position against the Endangered Species Act, among other things.

Busloads of environmental activists from the Bay Area are providing energy to dump the seven-time incumbent in favor of wind-turbine manufacturer Jerry McNerney, the Democrat.

"We see fertile opportunity in the ethical problems of Pombo and Doolittle, the national climate, and the proclivity of the House Republican leadership to look the other way" in the Foley-page scandal, said Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

In the district in northern San Diego County once represented by Cunningham, the Democratic Party has listed Francine Busby's as an "emerging race" as she tries to oust Bilbray, who defeated her in a June special election.

Busby, a school board member and women's-studies lecturer, has called on House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois) to resign because of a failure to investigate early signs of impropriety involving ex-Rep. Foley and the pages. She has challenged Bilbray to do the same, but he has refused.

Issues aside, politics is a game of numbers -- registration and money -- and in both regards incumbents enjoy the advantage.

"Gerrymandering has all but abolished competitiveness in November," said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican consultant and editor of the nonpartisan Target Book.

So lopsided is the registration that, for example, Democratic incumbents Xavier Becerra, Diane Watson and Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, Lucille Roybal-Allard of East Los Angeles, Juanita Millender-McDonald of Carson and Hilda Solis of El Monte face opposition that is either nonexistent or considered token.

California voters like incumbents, even when they break promises not to become career politicians. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk) and Ken Calvert (R-Corona) were reelected in 2004 despite breaking term-limit pledges and are running again this year.

Roll Call, the Washingtoninsider newspaper, archly notes that the only chance Republican Peter Hankwitz, a television producer, has of beating Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and serving in Congress is if "he stars in a sitcom that takes place on Capitol Hill."

In only one district has the incumbent opted for retirement. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield) is retiring; Assembly Minority leader Kevin McCarthy, a former Thomas aide, is favored to replace him. An intra-party fight was avoided in the primary when state Sen. Roy Ashburn of Bakersfield decided not to run.

In many districts, the only real fight was in the primary.

In the 50th District, Bilbray barely nosed out a millionaire investor, Eric Roach, to win the GOP nomination in the April primary to succeed Cunningham.

Roach considered continuing his candidacy but decided against it after a meeting with party leaders. Bilbray beat Busby in the June runoff to win the remaining months of Cunningham's term.

In the 51st District, which covers part of the San Diego border with Mexico and most of the Imperial Valley, Rep. Bob Filner, a Democrat, won a bitter contest with Assemblyman Juan Vargas of San Diego. Filner is now a prohibitive favorite to beat teacher Mike Blake, a Republican, for his eighth term.

"You have to go with form," Jacobson said. "The world can change, of course, but not very often."


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