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Nasty tone of South Bay congressional race is more typical of closer contests

Republican Craig Huey is pushing hard to defeat L.A. Councilwoman Janice Hahn in the race to replace Jane Harman. Democrats have an 18-point registration edge in the district.

June 27, 2011|By Jean Merl, Los Angeles Times
  • Republican Craig Huey, who runs a direct-mail advertising company, chats with campaign consultant Dave Gilliard, left, before a Torrance forum in April.
Republican Craig Huey, who runs a direct-mail advertising company, chats… (Ringo H.W. Chiu, For The…)

The odds may strongly favor the Democrat in next month's runoff to fill an empty South Bay congressional seat, but you wouldn't know it by the vituperative tone of the campaign, a phenomenon more often seen in very close races.

Republican businessman Craig Huey, whose second-place finish in the May primary over better-known candidates surprised most observers, is pushing hard for another upset. His rival, Democratic Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, isn't taking any chances, despite her party's 18-point registration edge.

The result has been a month-long blitz of attacks from each side, including a deliberately offensive video that both Hahn and Huey have denounced while nevertheless trying to gain advantage from it.

The battleground is the largely coastal South Bay-based 36th Congressional District, which had been represented for more than a decade by Venice Democrat Jane Harman until she resigned in February to lead a Washington think tank.

With the July 12 runoff coming up fast, the contest has drawn the attention of congressional campaign leaders in both major parties as well as national interest groups and state party leaders.

Women's organizations, including the fundraising powerhouse Emily's List, have backed Hahn, 59, as have labor unions, environmental groups and nearly all Democratic officeholders, from former President Clinton and Gov. Jerry Brown to members of Congress and the Legislature and city council members throughout the district.

Huey, 61, a first-time candidate with experience publishing voter guides for evangelical Christians and a history of involvement in local and GOP politics, has attracted support from such conservative stalwarts as Republican Reps. Tom McClintock of Granite Bay and Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach. Members of several "tea party" groups also are stumping for him.

The owner of a direct-mail advertising company — which Hahn has criticized for its business practices — Huey, who lives in Rolling Hills Estates, became the biggest spender in the 16-candidate primary by putting in $500,000 of his own money. He expects to spend at least that much on the runoff and has been raising money in addition to using more of his own, his campaign said.

The California Republican Party is providing volunteers and sending some get-out-the-vote mail.

Hahn raised nearly as much as Huey spent and had help from organized labor, which is pitching in again for the second round. She too is getting help from her state organization —the California Democratic Party did some fundraising and sent a mailer to Democratic voters encouraging them to use mail-in ballots in what is expected to be a low-turnout election.

Hahn first won election to the City Council in 2001. She is the daughter of the longtime L.A. County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who died in 1997, and the sister of former Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn. She narrowly lost a 1998 race for the congressional district — then less Democratic than now. During the primary, Hahn was generally viewed as the least liberal of the three leading Democratic candidates, with a more "blue collar" constituency.

Democrats are concerned in this mid-summer, single-contest election about turning out voters, something Republicans typically do better. The campaign took the unusual step of sending friendly voters postage-paid vote-by-mail ballots. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) recently told the Washington Post that "we're fighting hard in that race" and that winning won't be as easy as "people like to think it is."

Voting patterns in the district favor Hahn: It gave Barack Obama 64% of the vote in 2008 and went for Brown over his Republican opponent, 56% to 39%, in last year's gubernatorial race. On social issues, 57% of voters opposed Proposition 8, the 2008 measure to ban gay marriage, and polls and other indicators have pointed to support for environmental safeguards and a woman's right to choose an abortion.

Though Hahn has advocated creating more green jobs and bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan, her campaign also has launched repeated attacks on Huey, especially on social issues, where Democrats believe he is most out of step. Her first television ad compared him with Sarah Palin and highlighted his anti-abortion stance. Hahn's political mailers say he's "so far right … he's wrong!" Democrats also turned up an old news report in which Huey referred to "the forces of Satan" in battling opposition to a church expansion plan.

"We don't take anything or anyone lightly," said Hahn campaign strategist John Shallman. "We have to let voters understand that this is not some garden-variety Republican. This is a guy who wants to impose his extreme views … on others."

Dave Gilliard, Huey's campaign consultant, said his candidate is in sync with district voters on issues they care about most now: creating private-sector jobs to stimulate the economy and cutting taxes and government spending.

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