Republican Gary DeLong, left, hands a brochure to resident Terry McMullen… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)
The fight over a local congressional seat may look like a dust-up between two men who share a Long Beach base and little else. But the contest is a high-stakes rumble that could figure in the battle for control of the House.
This particular war zone is one of 10 competitive congressional districts in California, the largest number in more than a decade, courtesy of new political maps. The Republican candidate, City Councilman Gary DeLong, and the Democrat, state Sen. Alan Lowenthal, may emphasize their local ties and accomplishments, but the national parties want the race to be a referendum on the economy and federal budget, Social Security, MediCare and the Affordable Health Care Act.
The National Republican Congressional Committee named DeLong to its "Young Guns" program to help promising candidates and has been issuing news releases attempting to tie Lowenthal to controversial Democratic policies. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has added Lowenthal to its "Red to Blue" campaign to win battleground districts. Neither national party has spent money here, putting their cash instead into what they perhaps see as tighter contests. But that could change.
Made up of pieces of five old districts, the 47th swings along the coast in Long Beach — its biggest city—and into Orange County, including the communities of Westminster and Garden Grove. Democrats hold a 42%-31% registration edge over Republicans — a bigger margin than in many of the other competitive House races — but more than one-fifth of voters registered without a party preference. The incumbent, Democratic Rep. Laura Richardson, is seeking election in a different district.
DeLong, 52, is counting on his moderate views on social issues and a good turnout in Republican-strong Orange County to overcome Lowenthal's advantage. Voters districtwide resoundingly preferred President Obama over the GOP's John McCain in 2008 and chose Democrat Jerry Brown over Republican Meg Whitman in 2010.
Lowenthal, 71, has held public office since his 1992 election to the Long Beach City Council, and his politics form a more natural fit with the urban, diverse communities in the Los Angeles County portion of the district. More than half the registered voters live in Long Beach.
"DeLong is a perceptive, smart guy, the best candidate Republicans have had here in a long time," said veteran political consultant Jeffrey Adler, who lives in the district but is not siding with either campaign. "The challenge for DeLong is whether he can find enough Republican votes in Orange County to offset the big numbers that will naturally accrue to a Democrat in Los Angeles County," Adler said.
He noted that the national parties can open the cash spigot quickly if the race appears tight, saying they "allocate their money where they think it can do the most good." So far the only significant "outside" money arrived in a $320,000, one-week television ad campaign by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has endorsed DeLong. The ads, variations on spots the chamber ran in seven other contested California races, slammed Lowenthal as a "jobs killer."
Lowenthal responded with a news conference at a family-owned Mexican restaurant in Long Beach, attended by local business interests supporting him. He cited his efforts early in his political career to clean up pollution in the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports, efforts resisted by port businesses at first. But they later worked with Lowenthal, and an executive with Maersk, one of the two ports' largest firms, recently issued a statement praising the lawmaker's "ability to find common ground" and saying "he would be an excellent addition to the U.S. Congress."
DeLong, in his second term on the City Council and its only Republican, offers the city's balanced budgets and his ability to work across the political aisle as evidence he could help break the partisan gridlock in Congress. He is a fiscal conservative but strays from current GOP orthodoxy on social issues — he supports abortion rights and gay marriage. He spends weekends walking precincts, concentrating on such Republican-friendly communities as Rossmoor in Orange County, where neither he nor Lowenthal were known at the start of the race.
Lowenthal, too, has been known to break from his party. He worked on successful efforts to put the task of drawing voting maps in the hands of an independent citizens commission, and he recently voted against funding for a bullet train that the governor wants and many Democratic legislators support.
Affable and seemingly easygoing, DeLong caused a stir recently after a candidates' forum at Cal State Long Beach, when he grabbed a cellphone from a California Democratic Party operative who was using it to record his conversations with audience members. Sending workers to record opponents is a common tactic, and the Lowenthal campaign had a field day saying DeLong had "lost it" and questioning his fitness for Congress.
A DeLong aide said the operative had been "stalking" the candidate for weeks and was breaking rules set by the forum sponsor regarding recording.
The Long Beach Press-Telegram, which has endorsed DeLong, said in an editorial the candidate "needs to get a thicker skin."
"Ripping someone's property from their hands is not acceptable behavior from anyone," the editorial concluded, "especially a candidate for Congress."