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VOTER GUIDE | U.S. SENATE

GOP All but Cedes the Race to Feinstein

October 15, 2006|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

The Republican candidate for one of California's two seats in the Senate -- potentially one of the most powerful legislative positions in the country -- walked alone into a banquet room at the Pomona Valley Mining Co. restaurant on a recent morning and looked around.

The regular meeting of the California Federation of Republican Women, Southern Division, was underway, and the candidate, Dick Mountjoy, portly beneath a shock of white hair, stood mostly unnoticed. As a woman at the head table talked of plans for an upcoming convention, Mountjoy slipped small stacks of pamphlets and bumper stickers from the pockets of his cream-colored jacket and placed them on the registration table.

There was no entourage. No scheduler clicking away on a Blackberry or campaign handler whispering into a cellphone. Just Mountjoy, a former state senator from nearby Monrovia and self-described "biblical constitutionalist," here to talk to the Republican faithful about his campaign to unseat incumbent Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

David had it easier against Goliath.

During a national election cycle marked by a bitter fight for control of the Senate and the House of Representatives, the campaign for California's senior Senate seat has the feel of a foregone conclusion as Feinstein, one of the state's most popular vote-getters, holds a commanding lead among likely voters in the race.

"Mountjoy doesn't have the reach in the Republican Party or the name identification or the appeal to moderates that Feinstein has with Democrats," said Terry Christensen, a political analyst at San Jose State. The Republican Party "knows it, and they're not spending money on it. So it's partly Feinstein's strength and partly the California Republican Party's weakness," Christensen said.

And few people seem to know who Mountjoy is, despite his role as one of the architects of 1994's Proposition 187, which would have made it illegal for undocumented immigrants to receive many government benefits. Mountjoy's 29% support among all registered voters in the most recent Los Angeles Times poll is less than the 34% of state voters enrolled as Republicans. And in a July Field poll -- one of the last to ask the question -- 62% of voters said they did not know enough about Mountjoy to have an opinion about him.

Little has changed since then. Feinstein entered the late-summer push with more than $8 million in the bank to Mountjoy's $21,000, making it likely that this will be the second California race in a row for the Senate in which the Republican challenger was unable to air crucial television ads in the final weeks of the campaign.

The next financial reports aren't due until today, but even Republicans seem to have given up. The National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee -- a key funding and organizing tool for Republican Senate incumbents and hopefuls -- doesn't even list Mountjoy as a candidate on its website. To add insult to injury, where his face and biography should be posted, the website lists Barbara Boxer, a red flag for Republican bulls.

Which is fitting, since this lopsided matchup has its roots in Boxer's 58%-38% reelection two years ago over former California Secretary of State Bill Jones.

"The conventional wisdom is that Boxer is not as strong politically as Feinstein, and if Boxer could win in a walk, then the Feinstein race would be that much easier," said Jack Pitney, a political analyst at Claremont McKenna College and a former Republican official.

"Feinstein's advantage fed on itself. She went into the election a heavy favorite, and that deterred more credible candidates from getting in the race. From the Republican perspective, it's a vicious cycle. People don't think he can win, so they don't give him support, which makes it less likely he will win."

So why would a politician willingly enter such a race?

"The biggest upside is low expectations -- nobody expects him to do anything," Pitney said. "If he can crack 40%, he can claim a moral victory. But it's more about him doing his duty for the party. Major parties ought to nominate somebody to run against an incumbent, even if the outcome looks like a foregone conclusion. He's performing a service for textbook democracy."

Mountjoy insists that he is running to win and hopes that a strong Republican turnout and weak Democratic showing on election day will trump the early polls and overwhelming disparity in campaign budgets.

"We don't have a lot of money, but we have enough to get our message out, and that's all we need to do," Mountjoy said. "We don't try to match her money, just outdo her with the issues."

Mountjoy's platform embraces such boilerplate conservative issues as increased border security with Mexico, no amnesty for illegal immigrants, support for the war in Iraq, elimination of unspecified government waste, a stronger military and enhanced property rights. He also opposes abortion, even in cases of incest or rape, and gay marriage.

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