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GOP faces fierce fights for Congress

Democrats in the state have three assets this year: money, increased voter registration and Barack Obama.

October 27, 2008|Dan Morain | Morain is a Times staff writer.

SACRAMENTO — California Republicans once expected to cruise to reelection in Congress are now locked in fierce battles to retain their seats, as the nation's economic crisis propels Democrats fighting for districts they have not held in a generation.

Democrats and Republicans alike are all but certain that Barack Obama will easily win California's 55 electoral votes. Some think he could help carry one or more Democratic challengers to Congress.

Democrats already hold 34 of the state's 53 congressional seats. But they are particularly emboldened this year, flush with money and buoyed by registration gains. Republicans are struggling with, comparably, a lack of funds and lower levels of enthusiasm.

"We're not on the offense. We're only on defense," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), who is happy to find himself unopposed this year.

McCarthy lists the GOP's challenges: President Bush is profoundly unpopular, the Iraq war drags on, the economy is in crisis and Republicans don't have enough money.

"The wind is not at our back. It is in our face," McCarthy said. "It is tough being a Republican. It is tough being an incumbent."

Those who are both are particularly nervous.

Even David Dreier (R-San Dimas), a veteran of 28 years in the House and a member of the powerful Rules Committee, is campaigning hard for his seat, which includes parts of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. Dreier did not respond to a request for an interview.

Dreier's challenger, Russ Warner, is trying to portray the congressman as being too close to President Bush and out of touch with his district.

"People don't realize it because he has been in Congress for 28 years," Warner said.

Warner remains a long-shot, at least based on money. He had $28,000 in the bank as of Oct. 15, to Dreier's $1.2 million.

But Democrats generally have plenty of green. Through Oct. 15, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had $23.3 million in the bank after spending $78 million. The GOP congressional campaign committee had $12.7 million in the bank and had spent $46.3 million in this campaign.

"We are aggressively playing offense," committee spokesman Yoni Cohen said.

Complicating matters for Republicans, 29 of their incumbents across the country are retiring from Congress.

A national Republican Party official said the party's fears extend from California across the West.

The GOP is worried about seats in Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington and even Arizona, the home state of Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

For some Republicans, things are bad enough that they are avoiding mention of their party.

Dean Andal is a former GOP Assemblyman from Stockton, running for a Northern California seat that until two years was held by a Republican. He is a partisan who raises money for McCain. But casual voters might find that hard to grasp: Andal's television ads have neglected to mention his party affiliation.

Democrats started the 2008 election cycle assuming they would have to spend heavily to beat Andal and defend Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Pleasanton), who unseated veteran Republican Richard Pombo two years ago.

However, McNerney entered the campaign's final three weeks with $792,077 in the bank, nearly three times Andal's $270,700. McNerney has outspent Andal, $2.2 million to $1 million. National Republican officials have made only token donations to Andal, whose campaign manager did not return phone calls.

Farther north, Democrats are hoping to capture a district that stretches from suburban Sacramento to the Oregon border. John T. Doolittle (R-Roseville), who is enmeshed in a federal corruption investigation, is stepping down after 18 years.

With the district's lines drawn to ensure GOP control, Republicans hold a registration advantage over Democrats, 47% to 31%. But the Republican standard bearer is state Sen. Tom McClintock, and that has posed a problem: Though he lives in the Sacramento suburbs, McClintock represents a district 400 miles to the south, one that includes parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

McClintock's stock in trade is his antipathy toward taxes and most government programs.

Democrat Charlie Brown is challenging him as a career politician who has been in office for most of 26 years and is unfamiliar with the plight of everyday Californians.

"I'm like my neighbors: living on a budget and not off their taxes," said Brown, a Vietnam veteran who almost unseated Doolittle two years ago. "Everybody is upset. Everybody has a story about how the economy is hurting them."

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee lists the race as one of its two most likely pickups on Nov. 4. The committee is shifting money into it, spending about $250,000 on television to help Brown so far.

McClintock is campaigning against Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Obama, a risky strategy in a state where polls show Obama with a double-digit lead over Republican McCain.

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