Although Democrats had everything going for them in last night’s special election for the U.S. House, they managed to hold onto California’s 36th District by a mediocre margin. With near-final returns in, liberal Democrat Janice Hahn—Los Angeles City councilwoman and sister of former L.A. Mayor James Hahn—won the race by a margin of 55% to 45% over conservative Republican Craig Huey, a Torrance advertising man.
At first glance, both major parties could claim a victory of sorts in the race to succeed former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman, who had resigned her seat earlier this year to take over the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. Barely two months after they won a seat formerly in Republican hands for 41 years in New York’s 26th District, Democrats could boast that they have won every special election for Congress in 2011. This could make a case for Democrats that these races are the closest thing to referenda on the President and his budget agenda that includes scrapping the Bush taxes, which both Hahn and New York winner Kathy Hochul strongly backed.
But Republicans could make an even stronger case of the outcome in the 36th District. Their candidate did light years better than most guessed he would in a district in which Democrats outnumber Republicans among registered voters by 45% to 27%, and where Barack Obama and Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown rolled up 64% of the vote district-wide in their last trips to the polls.
Outspent by Hahn by about $1.3 million to $1 million ($800,000 of it from his own wallet), Huey received minimum support from the National Republican Congressional Committee. Running as an unabashed “tea party” Republican, he campaigned in favor of the House GOP’s “Ryan Plan” with dramatic reform of Medicare, opposed any tax increases, and vowed to vote for repeal of “ObamaCare.” Huey also took conservative stands on cultural issues such as abortion and marriage.
Coupled with his enthusiastic cadre of backers in the area tea parties, Huey was also able to build a good volunteer organization among the friends he made from years of campaigning for other Republican candidates. With an estimated 12% to 15% turnout of registered voters district-wide, the turnout among Republicans was much higher than among Democrats and particularly high in Huey’s hometown of Torrance.
“We walked precincts for Craig in the last weekend before the voting and used the latest in high-tech equipment to note the voters leaning our way,” California GOP National Committeeman Shawn Steel told HUMAN EVENTS, recalling how he and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R.-Cal.) led platoons of volunteers into the 36th District on behalf of Huey (whom they had known since their days in the conservative Young Americans for Freedom together).
Given his stronger-than-expected showing in a district that has sent a Republican to Congress for only two years since it was first carved in 1992, there is a case to be made that national issues were working in Huey’s favor. A Public Policy Polling survey conducted one week before the voting showed that “Declined To State” voters (Californian for “independents”), who comprise about 20% of the district electorate, favored Huey over Hahn by 10 percentage points. The same poll showed that a strong 53% of the same voters disapproved of Obama’s performance.
In the closing day of the campaign, the race did grow ugly. An outside group ran a series of TV spots showing Hahn as a stripper and alleging the Democrat was lenient on Los Angeles gang members as a councilwoman (Huey’s campaign disdained any association with the ad). Hahn also launched a strongly negative TV broadside against Huey warning that he was a “right wing extremist.”
Overall, the closer-than-expected Democratic retention of California’s 36th District probably portended little in terms of national politics. However, it is clear that, as it was with the tight race and narrow Democratic capture of New York’s 26th, politics is growing increasingly volatile and unpredictable as 2012 approaches.