For months now, Democratic activists have been urging Ventura lawyer Richard Francis to run next year for the seat held by Elton Gallegly, Ventura County's longtime Republican congressman.
Gallegly's backing of the Iraq war and his record on environmental issues could make the 11-term representative vulnerable with crossover voters who want the war to end and are worried about the effects of global warming, they argue.
Francis, the author of Ventura County's popular slow-growth laws, Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources, would be the most credible challenger to face Gallegly since 2000. In that year, Ventura lawyer Michael Case finished 13 percentage points behind Gallegly.
"He has name recognition because of SOAR. He's working on a traffic issue in Oxnard right now. And he's a former mayor of Ventura," county Democratic Chairman Bill Gallaher said of Francis. "He's out there with popular issues that seem to be supported in the area."
But Francis, 58, busy with a bustling law practice and an Oxnard traffic initiative campaign, isn't sure he's ready for the hard fight of unseating an incumbent. It would be an uphill, but not insurmountable, challenge, he said.
"I could do it," he said. "It seems like it's the year. I almost feel an obligation to run. But I'm not quite there yet."
Other Democrats mulling a run include Jill Martinez, an Oxnard minister who ran against Gallegly last year; Oak Park businesswoman Mary Pallant; and perennial candidate Brett Wagner.
The 24th Congressional District includes most of conservative-leaning Ventura County and broad swaths of ranchland in northern Santa Barbara County. Gallegly, a former Simi Valley real estate broker, has represented the district since 1986.
In February, Republicans held a 44% to 34% registration edge over Democrats, an advantage that plays into Gallegly's conservative strengths.
But Democratic analysts note that nearly 20% of registered voters don't align themselves with any party, a potentially powerful block of swing voters.
In his latest contest, Gallegly trounced Martinez, polling 61% of the vote to her 39%. His strong showing occurred despite publicity about his ambivalence about whether he would even run.
Gallegly threw the Republican establishment into a panic last year when he abruptly announced on the last day candidates could file papers that he was not running, citing an unspecified medical condition. Within a week, he reversed his decision and cruised to reelection.
In a recent interview, the 63-year-old legislator said he was in excellent health but hinted that he still was thinking about retirement after two decades in office. For now, all he will publicly say is that he is keeping his options open for the June 2008 primary.
"The dynamics have changed dramatically in the last year or so. Now [the Republicans] are in the minority," Gallegly said, referring to the Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress in November. "Leadership has put a full-court press on some of the more seasoned people. It's an honor to have people trying to convince you to stay."
Gallegly said he'd make a final decision in January or early February.
Francis said his decision about whether to enter the race would not depend on whether the seat is open. His greatest concern is raising the money necessary, about $1 million, to mount a credible campaign.
He also is in the midst of organizing an Oxnard initiative that would make it harder for developers to build houses near congested intersections. And he knows that a congressional run would take time away from his family.
"It's a busy time of life for me," he said.
Still, he's interested enough to have met with officials at the Democratic Congressional Candidates Committee. Two weeks ago, he visited wealthy friends on the East Coast who pledged their financial support, Francis said.
And he's talked with Case, who spent $727,000 on an unsuccessful 2000 attempt to unseat Gallegly.
Francis acknowledges that if he's going to jump in, he must do it soon. "I said June 1 was my do-or-die date, but I'll have to push that back a little," he said.
Francis made his initial foray into politics in 1987, when he was elected to the Ventura City Council. His four-year term was marked by pitched battles over the pace of development in the coastal city.
In 1995, frustrated by what he saw as runaway development, Francis teamed with another former councilman, Steve Bennett, to draft an ordinance that would put most growth decisions in the hands of voters.
Their SOAR growth-control laws were a hit with voters. Between 1995 and 2000, voters in eight of the county's 10 cities overwhelmingly approved laws that required voter approval of any development occurring outside designated growth boundaries.
"He has a lot of supporters because of SOAR," said Laura Winchester, first vice chairwoman of the county Democratic Party. "It transcends Republican and Democratic lines."
The Iraq war could also help not only Francis but also any Democrat who takes on Gallegly, party activists said. Public sentiment is overwhelmingly in favor of ending hostilities and bringing home the troops.
But Gallegly, who has voted to support President Bush every step of the way, said he stands by his votes.
"I don't know anyone who likes war. I don't like war," Gallegly said. "But I don't like people who posture to do us great harm."
He isn't worried either that his environmental record will hurt him. According to the League of National Conservation Voters, Gallegly has voted 8% of the time in favor of legislation it supported over the last eight years.
In the meantime, Francis figures that his environmental credentials would make it easier to lure conservative voters.
"Simi Valley is the pendulum that swings that district, just because it's so big and it's Elton's base," Francis said. "SOAR passed in Simi Valley with 70% of the vote."