Sabato's Crystal Ball

California Races

House Outlook for 2008

Will the GOP Swing the Pendulum Back?

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California (04) (Open Seat)

Outlook: Toss-up


November 14, 2008 Update:

California’s 4th district is still locked in crisis mode. Republican Tom McClintock was still leading the race by a narrowing margin of 815 votes on Thursday.

November 7, 2008 Update:

Republican Tom McClintock leads by 709 votes with 100 percent of precincts reporting. But the race may not be decided for several weeks because estimated 40,000 provisional ballots still need to be counted in eight counties before the final results can be tallied.

September 16, 2008 Update:

Fourth district voters already knew Tom McClintock was ambitious—after all, he moved from Southern California to run for the open seat—but they probably expected the state senator to take things one race at a time. As it turns out, while running for Congress and finishing his term in the legislature, McClintock was raising money for not one, but two California statewide campaigns (Lieutenant Governor and the Board of Equalization). When the news broke, McClintock reacted immediately and closed down the accounts, but the damage was done.

Will McClintock’s stumble affect his chances of winning in November? Probably not: the district leans strongly Republican, and McClintock has shown the talent to match his ambition. Still, his opponent Charlie Brown, who came close last cycle, remains within striking distance in the polls and claims a lead in one internal survey. Odds are, McClintock will win this fall, but he cannot afford too many mistakes if he wants to keep the seat in GOP hands.

June 4, 2008 Update:

In a somewhat anti-climactic end to perhaps the most exciting primary race in the country, conservative Republican state senator Tom McClintock defeated moderate ex-Rep. Doug Ose by a 54-39 margin. The race had been characterized by ceaseless attacks and a heated endorsement and fundraising battle. In the end, McClintock raised over $1 million for the primary alone, while Ose somehow scrounged together over $3.3 million!

McClintock must now face 2006 candidate and retired Air Force Colonel Charlie Brown, who has raised as much as McClintock, but spent much less since he avoided a serious primary challenge. Going into the general election, Brown has nearly $500,000 cash on hand, while McClintock has just $100,000. Brown proved to be a strong candidate in 2006, pulling to within three percent of retiring Rep. John Doolittle on Election Day. But in a heavily Republican district (61% for Bush in 2004) in a presidential election year, and with the scandal-plagued Doolittle off the ballot, Republicans have the early edge.

March 26, 2008 Update:

California’s second district continues to host one of the most fluid and entertaining primary contests in the nation. At our last update, the Republican nomination was shaping up to be a no-holds-barred grudgematch between conservative Rico Oller and moderate Doug Ose with 06 challenger Charlie Brown awaiting in the general. The tables have turned once again. Oller is out, and state senator Tom McClintock has jumped in to challenge Ose from the right.

The only thing that hasn’t changed is the tenor of the campaign. McClintock slams Ose for his views insufficiently conservative views, and Ose accuses McClintock—who represents a Southern California district nearly 400 miles away—of being a carpetbagger in search of higher office (full disclosure: Ose just moved into the district himself!). What is most clear from the GOP nomination battle is the high quality of the two Republican candidates. Provided the party doesn’t self-destruct before the primary, whichever politician emerges should be a strong favorite to defeat Charlie Brown in a general election and keep the seat in Republican hands.


Background

The long-awaited retirement of scandal-plagued Representative John Doolittle allowed California Republicans to breathe a sigh of relief, if only for a moment. If Doolittle had pursued reelection and survived a primary challenge from Air Force Reserve officer Eric Egland, he would likely be defeated by 2006 nominee Charlie Brown, who came within three points of Doolittle last cycle.

Doolittle’s resignation allows this Republican-leaning district to remain in Republican hands, but at the cost of a contentious primary. Former state senator Rico Oller and ex-Representative Doug Ose will face off in a primary that threatens to expose rifts within the district’s Republican party. Oller, the more conservative of the two, has been endorsed by Doolittle as well the Club for Growth, while the California Farm Bureau Federation’s support of the moderate Ose should play well in the district with California’s largest rural population.

Both Republican candidates are already taking the battle to television airwaves, and the primary threatens to turn negative out of the candidates’ mutual acrimony. If the eventual Republican nominee can heal intra-party wounds before November, the seat stands a good chance of remaining in GOP hands. However, should Republicans fail to put their differences aside, Charlie Brown may deliver the party “good grief” for the next two years.

Candidates

Charlie Brown – Democrat – 2006 Democratic candidate, retired U.S. Air Force colonel
Website

Tom McClintock – Republican – state senator
Website

California (11)

Outlook: Leans Democratic


November 18, 2008 Update:

Freshman Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney held on to his seat with a 55% to 45% victory over rival Dean Andal. Republicans failed to recapture the district which they initially lost in 2006.

July 29, 2008 Update:

Dean Andal entered the race against Representative Jerry McNerny as one of the GOP’s most touted recruits. After a relatively smooth start, the last few months have been rocky for Andal. The Republican has stumbled upon a minor scandal related to lobbying a local college on behalf of a construction contractor, but Andal’s meager fundraising efforts are more troubling. The challenger raised a paltry $171K in the second quarter compared to McNerney’s $1.37 million cash on hand, yet his campaign insists that it remains on track for its fundraising goals.

Despite Andal’s recent hiccups, McNerny is not out of the woods yet; the city of Stockton tops the nation in home foreclosures and voters may seek to vent their frustrations by ousting the incumbent. Even if the GOP doesn’t knock off McNerny this time, there will always be next cycle for this perpetually-vulnerable freshman to succumb to district demographics.


Background

Perhaps more than anyone, Representative Jerry McNerney benefited from the Democratic wave of 2006 to de
feat ex-Rep. Richard Pombo. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 43 to 37 percent respectively in this Bay Area district. Believing he is ripe for a challenge, the House Democratic leadership has rewarded McNerney with prized committee assignments—Transportation and Infrastructure and Steering—usually unavailable to freshmen members. By voting against troop withdrawal deadlines in Iraq, McNerney himself has attempted to craft a moderate reelection image, and his weekly cross-country visits to the West Coast go great lengths in establishing rapport with district constituent.

Republicans have recruited a solid challenger in former California assemblyman Dean Andal. Andal has the endorsement of the Club for Growth, whose financial support may be critical given the disinclination of the cash-strapped NRCC to fund challenger races. Although the district leans strongly Republican, McNerney has done everything within his power to ensure reelection. Given the Democratic-friendly environment and barring unforeseen developments the race leans Democratic for the time being.

Candidates

Jerry McNerney (I) – Democrat – current Congressman
Website

Dean Andal – Republican – businessman, former state assemblyman
Website

California (50)

Outlook: Leans Republican


November 14, 2008 Update:

Republican Brian Bilbray beat his opponent Nick Leibhamto keep his seat, receiving over 50 percent of the vote compared to Leibham’s 45 percent.


Background

Rep. Brian Bilbray is just wrapping up his first full term after succeeding disgraced ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham in a 2006 special election and winning reelection later that November. Although the district gave Bush double-digit victory margins in 2000 and 2004, national Democrats are gushing about this race and are ready to put their money where their mouths are. Already they have aired radio ads opposing Bilbray and the DCCC just added challenger Nick Leibham to their list of ’emerging races’, the group of races just below their ‘Red to Blue’ list.

Why is Bilbray in trouble? First, Democrats are hoping Cunningham’s corruption conviction has left a lasting tarnish on the GOP brand in this district. To take advantage of this, they hope to use gas prices as the antidote to incumbency, a national strategy that seems prudent given gas prices of over $4 a gallon in most parts of the U.S.. Still, it seems Democrats will have to find something more sensational to defeat Bilbray. Although California’s electoral votes are all but certain to be cast for Democrat Barack Obama, this district will just as likely support Republican John McCain. If Democrats want voters to avoid the temptation to vote a straight-party ticket and kick out an incumbent congressman at the same time, they’ll have to give voters a good reason. While they haven’t found one yet, they have the machinery in place in case they do.

Candidates

Brian Bilbray (I) – Republican – current Congressman
Website

Nick Leibham – Democrat – attorney
Website