A New House Seat Open to Republicans?

After seven terms in the House and at age 57, California’s Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher decided two weeks that the time is right to move on.  She is giving up her 10th District seat (Northern California) and accepting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s offer to be Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.  
So, as it was with Rahm Emanuel’s decision to leave his Chicago-area House seat to become White House chief of staff and Kirsten Gillibrand’s exit from her upstate New York House to replace Clinton in the Senate, the early days of the Obama administration have created the need for a third special election to fill a House vacancy. Tauscher is expected to resign her seat once she is confirmed and betting among pols and pundits is that the special election will be held in September.
On paper, the 10th District has been considered securely Democratic since onetime Wall Street investment banker and self-styled “centrist” Tauscher narrowly unseated conservative Republican Rep. Bill Baker in 1992.  In 2002, she was the only Democratic House Member in the Golden State to be unopposed in the fall, and she easily polished off token Republican opposition in her last three trips to the polls.  
But with Tauscher exiting, the likely scenario of a crowded and divisive Democratic primary raises the odds on a possible Republican victory. Since state legislators do not have to relinquish their seats to run for Congress this year, any of a number of them can “run from cover” for the 10th. Among the Democrats mentioned include Assemblyman Tom Torlakson and State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier.  

GOPers privately express hope that DeSaulnier becomes the Democratic nominee.  The senator has been in the forefront of efforts to raise the threshold to raise taxes from two-thirds of the electorate to only 55%. At a time when moves are rampant to raise state and national taxes on higher-income wage-earners, such a position is not likely to sit well in a district that includes tony Walnut Creek and Contra Costa County.  

Although Barack Obama carried the district last fall by a margin of 2-to-1, Republicans feel confident they will have the money and the candidate to wage a strong race in a special election.  As the Wall Street Journal’s John Fund noted, “In a typically low-turnout special election, the GOP could be especially helped if local voters are strongly motivated to send a message to Washington. Handicappers also note that the district gave GOP Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger a 16-point win in his 2006 re-election race and that Proposition 8, which barred gay marriage, won 46% of the vote in the district last November.”

At this writing, five prominent Republicans are mentioned to run for the district when Tauscher leaves.  However, local GOP leaders privately say that their two strongest contenders are Contra Costa County Sheriff Warren Rupf and attorney Tom Del Beccaro, the state party vice-chairman.  

Both have strong followings among grass-roots activists.  The 66-year-old Rupf has won countywide four times and is well known after four decades in law enforcement.  Del Beccaro appears on more than 100 local radio and TV talk shows a year and is considered one of the GOP’s most effective communicators.

All told, the demographics of the 10th District favor its retention by another Democrat.  But given the unusual circumstances of a special election and traditional low turnout, along with the likelihood of an unusually strong Republican candidate, the race to succeed Ellen Tauscher is definitely worth watching.