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CAMPAIGN '08: CALIFORNIA HOUSE RACES

Democrats hope to wrest House seats

With an army of new voters, the state party sees opportunities to make inroads in GOP strongholds.

June 05, 2008|Phil Willon | Times Staff Writer

California Democrats hope a surge in party registration this year, triggered by the intense interest in February's presidential primary, will help the party hold onto one vulnerable seat and capture long-shot victories in a handful of other congressional races this November.

One of the fiercest contests in the nation could be in Northern California's 11th District, where Republicans have targeted freshman Democrat Jerry McNerney. In 2006, the bookish wind engineer from Pleasanton took down GOP giant Richard W. Pombo, the then-powerful chairman of the House Resources Committee who came under a searing attack by environmental groups for his attempts to dismantle the Endangered Species Act.

McNerney is being challenged by former Republican state Assemblyman Dean Andal of Stockton, and the race is expected to be as nasty as it is expensive.

Already, the national parties have launched websites thrashing their rivals and have made it a magnet for partisan fundraising efforts. Both candidates ran unopposed in the primary.

Even the Democratic registration surge is not expected to help in GOP strongholds, including the 4th District near Sacramento where conservative state Sen. Tom McClintock easily defeated his moderate Republican rival, former U.S. Rep. Doug Ose of Sacramento, in Tuesday's primary.

But it could come into play in more contested areas, particularly if the expected nominees, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, are able to lure wild card voters -- including independents and young voters -- to the polls. The McNerney seat is a prime example.

"That will be by far the hottest race, and it could be determined by the top of the ticket," said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP strategist who runs the Target Book, a nonpartisan compendium of political races in California.

California's Democratic presidential primary, which Obama lost to New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, translated into a jump in Democratic registration: Democrats added more than 300,000 voters to the rolls between late January and mid-May, compared with just under 15,000 for the Republicans.

"Because of the intensity of the primary campaign, 93% of all new registered voters between January and April were Democrats," said Art Torres, the state Democratic party chief. "That's going to have an impact everywhere."

Hoffenblum said that in an Obama landslide -- which he does not expect -- a few Republican incumbents could face credible challenges in November, including Rep. David Dreier of San Dimas and Rep. Brian Bilbray of Carlsbad.

Dreier, a former chairman of the influential House Rules Committee, is being challenged by Rancho Cucamonga businessman Russ Warner, who has made his opposition to the Iraq war one of the centerpieces of his campaign. Dreier has close to $2 million on hand, far outpacing his rival, and represents a solidly Republican district.

Bilbray's district is also heavily Republican, and he enjoys a comfortable financial advantage over his Democratic challenger, attorney Nick Leibham. Bilbray won the 50th District in a hard-fought June 2006 special election that was targeted by both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

"If the Democrats couldn't take that seat in 2006 in a low-turnout special election, and now think that they will during a high-turnout presidential election, they have to be on crack," said Ron Nehring, chairman of the California Republican Party.

Nehring believes the only hotly contested race in the state will be the battle between McNerney and Andal. "Despite all the talk, the Democrats have no pickup opportunities in California and we do," he said.

Democratic leaders, however, believe they have a shot at the 4th District seat being vacated by Rep. John Doolittle (R-Roseville), who is retiring amid a drawn-out FBI corruption investigation into his ties with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Democratic nominee Charlie Brown, a retired Air Force officer, came close to defeating Doolittle in 2006. This time, he'll face McClintock, who built a solid conservative following during his four unsuccessful bids for statewide office. Unlike California overall, the district, which extends from the Sacramento suburbs to the Oregon border, is dominated by Republicans.

Still, Brown thinks his military background and moderate politics will have much more appeal to voters than the conservative views of a career politician from Southern California.

"All we're hearing from the other side is what's best for the soul of the Republican Party. All you're hearing from me is what's best for the district and the county," Brown said Wednesday.

Barbara O'Connor, professor of political communication at Cal State Sacramento, doubts Brown has a shot, saying he failed to capitalize in 2006 even when running against an incumbent marred by scandal.

"If you look at the registration, it's more conservative than Orange County," she said.

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phil.willon@latimes.com

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