About three months after entertainer-turned-congressman Sonny Bono died in a skiing accident in January 1998, his widow Mary resoundingly won a crowded special election to succeed him in the Riverside County district. Now remarried to another congressman, Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack is facing an aggressive reelection challenge from Palm Springs' Democratic mayor, Steve Pougnet.
The race — in common with the handful of other closely watched House contests in the state — figures in the Nov. 2 battle between Democrats and Republicans for control of Congress that will help determine the fate of many Obama administration policies. And much of the campaign has reflected that.
National political leaders have weighed in, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for Bono Mack and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis for Pougnet. Congressional campaign leaders in both parties have helped their respective candidates raise money by including them in programs to boost their visibility among donors.
The only GOP woman in California's congressional delegation, Bono Mack, 49, also of Palm Springs, has an edge in voter registration.
"Mary Bono Mack is being given more of a run than she has had in the past," said Shaun Bowler, a political science professor at UC Riverside. "But the Republicans do have a registration advantage," and "this year, Democrats are going to stay home more."
Still, Republicans' advantage in the district has narrowed in recent years; it is now about three percentage points.
Bono Mack has raised more money than her opponent; she reported to the Federal Election Commission that she has collected more than $2.2 million. Pougnet reported more than $1.8 million.
Pougnet, 47, is counting on the district's changing demographics — and perhaps a little unintended help from a conservative third-party candidate — to aid his efforts to oust the 12-year incumbent. Democrats take heart from the fact that President Obama carried the district two years ago and its voters favored Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein in 2004 and 2006, respectively.
Bono Mack believes her conservative, smaller-government views better reflect those of her constituents in the 45th Congressional District, which stretches west from the Arizona border to Moreno Valley and Murrieta. Like many of her GOP colleagues, she opposed the Obama administration's federal stimulus bill as too costly and ineffective, as well as its healthcare overhaul and its resistance to extending breaks for high-income taxpayers.
"It sounds cliche, but the future direction of our country" is what's at stake in next month's elections, Bono Mack said in an interview. "I'm confident that what I believe in is better for our country than what the Democrats offer.
"In my district, voters have a very clear choice [between] somebody like myself, who believes the entrepreneurial spirit needs to be unleashed, and my very liberal opponent."
Bono Mack also "vehemently" opposes Proposition 19, the measure on the Nov. 2 ballot to legalize marijuana use, and calls for legislation to end "frivolous" lawsuits. And she would like to see fewer regulations on business as a way to foster economic and jobs growth.
A member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Bono Mack wrote legislation that requires some types of fresh foods to be labeled with their country of origin, an important issue in her agriculture-rich district. Among other projects, she shepherded measures that led to the creation of the Santa Rosa San Jacinto Mountains National Monument and secured federal money for restoration of the Salton Sea, distinctive natural resources in the area.
Pougnet was elected to the Palm Springs City Council in 2003 and as mayor in 2007, a post once held by Bono Mack's late husband. Openly gay, he is married to a pharmaceutical salesman, and they are the parents of twins.
He promises to work to create jobs; to see that small businesses have access to capital; and to push for comprehensive immigration reform that includes securing the borders, enforcing current statutes and creating a path to legalization for worthy immigrants. He also calls for programs that foster renewable energy sources and that improve education, especially in math and science.
"I have a campaign that has a tremendous amount of momentum and energy," Pougnet said in an interview.
"People are clamoring for change," he said, attacking Bono Mack as "someone who is out of touch with the district."
He also accuses her of distorting his record by claiming that he raised taxes in Palm Springs ("Only the voters can do that," he said).
The Pougnet campaign gloated when Bono Mack withdrew an ad featuring an animated tour bus traveling through Palm Springs with a guide pointing out vacant storefronts and an unemployment line. It was meant to criticize Pougnet's tenure as mayor, but downtown business owners complained that it put the city in a bad light and might discourage tourists and new businesses.
"She trashes the city she lives in," Pougnet said.
When Pougnet ran an ad with children chanting a disparaging rhyme about Bono Mack ("Don't send her back, back, back"), she demanded an apology, saying the spot exploited young children.
The Pougnet campaign recently took the unusual step of calling voters to urge a vote for the third candidate on the ballot, Menifee businessman Bill Lussenheide of the American Independent Party. Lussenheide, 53, does not appear to have money to put on a viable campaign, and Bono Mack supporters saw the calls as an attempt to split the conservative vote.
"We were just making sure that people know they have a choice, that there's a third-party candidate," said Pougnet, who declined to say how many voters were called.