Campaign signs for Craig Huey, Republican candidate and his opponent Democrat… (Fred Prouser / Reuters )
In a hard-fought special congressional election marked by sharp divisions in ideology and even sharper personal attacks, Democrat Janice Hahn held a solid lead over underdog Republican Craig Huey in partial returns Tuesday.
Turnout was just more than 23% but still higher than in the May 17 primary, when less than 13.8% of voters cast ballots to put Hahn and Huey in first and second place, respectively, in a 16-candidate field.
Democrats hold an 18-point registration edge in California's largely coastal 36th Congressional District, based in the South Bay. Jane Harman, a Venice Democrat, gave up the seat in February to run a Washington think tank.
Most observers expected Hahn, a Los Angeles city councilwoman and member of a prominent local political family, to have little trouble winning after Democratic Secretary of State Debra Bowen was edged out of the runoff by Huey.
But Huey, 61, owner of a marketing firm and publisher of Christian voter guides, mounted a stronger-than-expected campaign, in large part by putting in more than $800,000 of his own money. He rallied "tea party" members and other conservatives and, with his cut-spending/grow-jobs message, tried to appeal to independents and others he felt were fed up with the federal government.
Hahn, 59, raised $1.3 million to Huey's nearly $1.1 million, bolstered by help from labor unions, the California Democratic Party and prominent Democratic officials. President Obama and former President Bill Clinton made automated calls to voters on her behalf, and Clinton helped her raise money. Hahn called for preserving Social Security, bringing troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan as soon as possible and using the money spent on the wars to invest in green technology and jobs.
The race was contentious. Huey dismissed Hahn as another "career politician," and she criticized his "extreme" views opposing abortion rights and gay marriage. He distributed videos of a local Fox News affiliate's 2008 report linking her to gang members — subsequently discredited by at least two other news organizations and L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck.
The Republican's campaign objected to a Hahn mailer that it said falsely implied an endorsement from a World War II prisoner of war. Democrats had a videographer on hand last weekend when Huey was served a subpoena in connection with a child support dispute he had with his ex-wife.
On election day, the Hahn campaign filed complaints with authorities alleging that Huey's supporters tried to discourage hers by telling them the election had been postponed a day and giving them wrong polling place addresses. The Huey campaign denied any involvement and called the complaints a trick to improve turnout for Hahn.
On Monday, Hahn's mother died unexpectedly, causing the candidate to cut back on last-minute campaign activities.
The race drew some national attention as a possible harbinger of what lies ahead in the 2012 elections. The district will be redrawn, along with others in California, before then, and most expect it to be at least somewhat less Democratic.