Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack, right, of Palm Springs is facing the toughest… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
Washington's election-year power struggle has spilled into two hotly contested congressional races in the Inland Empire region, where results were once as predictable as a hot summer day in Hemet.
Rejiggered political districts and the GOP's declining membership have given Democrats a shot in both races next month — victories the party is counting on in its effort to pick up 25 additional seats and recapture control of the House.
The high stakes have triggered millions of dollars in spending by the parties and independent groups trying to nationalize the races into a referendum on such hyper-charged Washington issues as President Obama's healthcare overhaul and the steep tax cuts proposed by GOP vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan.
In one of the races, the Democratic Party has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into efforts to defeat Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack of Palm Springs, who is facing the toughest challenge of her 14-year congressional career from political newcomer Raul Ruiz, a Democrat and emergency room doctor.
In the other battle, House Speaker John Boehner traveled west this summer to help raise money for Republican John Tavaglione, a Riverside County supervisor who is running in the wide-open district centered in Riverside. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also came to the aid of Tavaglione, launching a $220,000 television ad campaign attacking his Democratic opponent, high school teacher Mark Takano.
"It's nice to have contests for a change," said UC Riverside political scientist Shaun Bowler. "In the past, outcomes have been about as regular as they are in Cuba or North Korea."
Only two Democrats have gone to Washington from Riverside or San Bernardino counties since Richard Nixon was in the White House — Rep. George Brown, a Vietnam War foe, and Rep. Joe Baca, who replaced Brown after he died in 1999.
As it has statewide, Republican voter registration has eroded in the Inland Empire region, where the population has grown by nearly a million in the last decade. In 2002, the majority of voters in both counties were Republican. Democrats now claim a slim majority in San Bernardino County, and in Riverside County, the GOP's 13-point advantage has been cut in half. Last year's independent redistricting turned a number of Republican-leaning districts competitive.
The impact has been tremendous on the 41st Congressional District, which includes Riverside, Moreno Valley and a slice of Ontario. Five-term supervisor Tavaglione has a clear advantage in name recognition, but Democrats have a registration edge of three percentage points.
"It's one of those competitive seats that no one is talking about … and it's going to be important for deciding control of the House," said Nathan L. Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan publication that covers congressional campaigns.
Tavaglione is campaigning as a moderate, touting his efforts to help bring 40,000 new jobs to the recession-flattened region and carefully distancing himself from tea party Republicans. At a recent debate in Riverside, he told an audience he supports abortion rights as well as a "path toward citizenship" for illegal immigrants and, although he supports tax cuts, refuses to sign conservative activist Grover Norquist's pledge against tax increases.
"I sat around watching the debt-ceiling debate … and I was disgusted, by my own party and the Democrats not being able to come together for the benefit of our country," Tavaglione said.
Democrat Takano, a community college trustee running on a platform of increased support for education and job creation, tells voters not to be swayed by his opponent's appeal to the middle. He noted that Tavaglione in the past raised money for former President George W. Bush and has received a contribution from the Koch brothers, the billionaire energy executives who have backed Republican candidates and conservative causes.
"I don't believe we can count on you to stand up to John Boehner or Paul Ryan," Takano said. "You're going to empower a Republican ideology in Washington which is going to double-down on trickle-down" economics.
Congress' unpopularity also has provided ammunition for the campaigns. Bono Mack casts her opponent as one of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's minions, a tactic Bono Mack used to beat back challengers in the last two elections.
Aiding the cause, two Republican "super PACS" and the Republican Party are spending more than $1 million on television ads and mailers against Ruiz that are rife with allegations that he would be Pelosi's puppet.
"It's the same-old, same-old with" Bono Mack, Ruiz said. "People are tired of it. They realize she's part of the hyper-partisan problem in Washington.''