Rep. Gary Miller had nearly $575,000 in his campaign account by June 30,… (Dennis Cook / Associated…)
It's little wonder that Democrats have set their sights on GOP Rep. Gary Miller, widely viewed as one of the most vulnerable House members in next year's elections, mainly because he holds a seat that the opposite party had been expected to win last year.
Spurred by redrawn political maps, the conservative Republican congressman moved into an Inland Empire district increasingly favorable to Democrats. Under the state's new "top-two" primary system, Miller defeated a fellow Republican last November after four Democrats split their party's vote and failed to survive the primary.
But Miller's hard-line record on immigration may not sit well in his new district, where nearly half the population is Latino. And Democratic leaders are working to clear an already crowded field to avoid a repeat of the intraparty fight.
The blood-in-the-water atmosphere heated up the race well ahead of next June's primary. Miller is "by far the most vulnerable House Republican in the country," said David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
But the congressman, 64, and fellow Republicans insist he can win again. With nearly $575,000 in the bank by June 30, the latest reporting period, he had a bigger campaign treasury than any of the Democrats now in the race. The House GOP campaign arm, eager to help Republicans keep their majority, is likely to provide further help.
And turnout in off-year elections historically has favored Republicans.
The San Bernardino County seat Miller occupies "was not one the Republicans should have won, and holding it is going to be difficult," said UC Riverside political scientist Shaun Bowler. "But there are scenarios in which he could still win."
Democrats hold a 41% to 34% registration edge in the 31st Congressional District. It stretches west from Redlands and San Bernardino to Upland and Rancho Cucamonga, where Miller, a wealthy land developer and former Diamond Bar mayor and state assemblyman, now lives with his wife and three grandchildren.
District voters backed Jerry Brown for governor and Barbara Boxer— both Democrats — for U.S. Senate in 2010. Last year, they went for President Obama and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein — Democrats again — by wide margins. Democrats immediately began making plans to take the seat.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Feinstein and several House Democrats have backed Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar, who finished third in the 2012 primary. A local Democratic club already has held a public forum featuring candidates of its party — a step that allows it to make an endorsement soon in hopes of discouraging the other announced candidates.
Those contenders are former Rep. Joe Baca of Rialto, who was defeated last year in a neighboring district; Colton attorney Eloise Gomez Reyes; and Danny Tillman, a San Bernardino school board member.
"Too many candidates kind of spoil the odds," said Steve Chapman, president of the Redlands Area Democratic Club, "but nobody wants to be the one to drop out."
Miller, who was elected to Congress in 1998, said that reports of his vulnerability were exaggerated and that voters would judge him on what he can do in Washington, especially given his seniority and experience, to help create jobs, boost home values and improve transportation.
"They said I was vulnerable the last time, and it didn't turn out that way," Miller said in a telephone interview. "I'd prefer not to be [the Democrats'] top target, but it doesn't affect what I do."
Miller has mostly had a relatively low profile in Washington. He has often voted with the party, opposing, for example, President Obama's healthcare law (although he broke with then-President George W. Bush and GOP leadership in 2008 to join Democrats pushing for up to $300 billion in federal mortgage guarantees for homeowners at risk of foreclosure).
He's been perhaps most prominent as vice chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, dealing with housing matters. He sponsored bipartisan legislation this year that would help provide home builders access to credit for viable home building projects.
On the hot-button issue of immigration, he offered a get-tough bill called the Loophole Elimination and Verification Enforcement (LEAVE) Act, which included a call to deny citizenship to anyone born in the U.S. to parents here illegally.
He opposed the Dream Act in 2010, which offered a path to citizenship for some young people brought to this country illegally as children. He called it "an assault to the American Dream and rewards those that have not played by the rules."
And Miller recently voted for a House-passed measure to stop funding the Obama administration program that has halted deportation of young immigrants who are in high school or college or have served in the military. That prompted Democrats to run Spanish-language radio ads in Miller's district assailing the lawmaker for his vote.