Leader of Gray Davis Recall Campaign Is Favorite for Cunningham's Seat

Howard Kaloogian, the conservative who led the successful recall campaign against Democrat Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, jumped out as the early favorite to replace Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R.-Calif.), who today pleaded guilty of accepting $2.4 million in bribes and resigned from Congress.

With Cunningham’s announced exit, pundits and pols in the Republican-heavy district focused on Kaloogian, the conservative swashbuckler who had been considered the front-runner for the GOP nomination after the incumbent congressman said he wouldn’t seek re-election earlier this year.

“I’m ready to run now, as I was ready to run then and ready to run years ago,” former State Assemblyman Kaloogian told me. A well-known figure in national conservative circles and San Diego Republican politics, the 45-year-old Kaloogian had represented a legislative district almost contiguous with the present congressional district from 1994-2000. A strong supporter of the strict term limits legislation that ended his own tenure in the legislature, Kaloogian has been on the cutting edge of almost every major conservative cause and issue for the past decade.

When Cunningham announced his retirement amid the investigation that eventually forced him to leave Congress, Kaloogian declared for the seat on a flight back from Iraq, where he had been visiting U.S. troops with conservative radio talk show hostess Melanie Morgan. Although he was joined by five other Repubilcans in the primary to succeed Cunningham, Kaloogian has raised the most money of the field and racked up the most endorsements from leading conservatives. Among those weighing in early for the conservative hopeful are the Gun Owners of America, National Right to Work Committee, Concerned Women for America, and Phyllis Schlafly‘s Eagle Forum.

Days before Cunningham’s resignation, Kaloogian got a major boost when the candidate considered most likely to divide the conservative primary vote announced he was leaving the House race. Mark Wyland, head of a major family-owned lumber business and Kaloogian’s successor in the Assembly, told supporters that he was switching from a race for Congress to a bid to succeed outgoing GOP State Sen. William Morrow. Six years after he lost a primary in the neighboring district to current Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, Morrow is also running to succeed Cunningham in the 50th.

Along with Kaloogian and Morrow, the other leading candidates for the Republican nomination in the 50th are moderate former Rep. (1994-2000) Brian Bilbray, who represented a neighboring district until his defeat by Democrat Susan Davis six years ago, and businessman Alan Uke, who brought the U.S.S. Midway to San Diego as a floating museum. But given his work on causes ranging from the recall of former Democratic Gov. (1998-2003) Gray Davis in ’03 to support of U.S. troops, Kaloogian is the early front-runner on the right.

“Conservative leaders and grassroots conservatives know I’ll do more than vote right–I’ll be a leader because I’ve been there, on causes from gun owners rights to the pro-life cause to the U.S. mission in Iraq, which is working,” Kaloogian told me.

He also underscored his strong stand on securing the border with Mexico and thoroughly processing immigrants who come in (“19 terrorists were behind 9/11–who knows how many like them are among the 2 million who have come in over the border without processing?”) and on freezing the budget for the next fiscal year to stop reckless federal spending.

Support from national conservatives is particularly important in a California Republican primary, since “the party donor based has been drained for four years straight,” said Kaloogian. As he noted, along with the elections of ’02 and ’04, Republican donors were asked to contribute major dollars for the ’03 recall election that brought Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governorship and the ’05 statewide reform initiatives that the GOP governor sought unsuccessfully to pass.

Most California sources expect Schwarzenegger to set sometime in April as the date of the primary and June 6 (when the Golden State holds primaries for state and local office) as the date of the special election for Cunningham’s San Diego-area 50th District.