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Political reforms = tight House races

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POSTED October 10, 2012 8:39 p.m.



SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Thanks to an independent citizens panel that reshaped California's political map, congressional elections that used to be preordained during party primaries have transformed this fall into hotly contested free-for-alls.

As the fight intensifies over roughly a dozen up-for-grab seats, outside groups are pouring tens of millions of dollars in campaign cash into races from San Diego to Sacramento.

California's new top-two primary system has created a second twist for the November ballot: several races in which two candidates from the same party are fighting over the same seat. That includes the race involving the longest-serving member of the state's congressional delegation, Democratic Rep. Pete Stark, who has served his San Francisco Bay area constituents since the end of the Vietnam War.

With the nation's largest congressional delegation, California's 53 seats are a focal point for both parties as they compete feverishly for control of the House in November.

Four tight races alone are brewing in the region surrounding the state capital.

Incumbent Democratic Rep. John Garamendi, who has held state and federal political offices for nearly four decades, faces Kim Vann, a 37-year-old pro-choice county supervisor who national Republicans consider one of their top hopes for defeating a Democratic incumbent.

Vann, a member of a local ranching family rooted in the heart of the 3rd Congressional district, north of Sacramento, said Garamendi does not know his new district.

"He's been in office longer than I have been on the face of the Earth," she said. "And I just don't think he knows what the needs of this district looks like."

Garamendi, 67, who was sent to Washington by a more liberal electorate in his former district, which was centered in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region, said he was confident local voters recognized his service. He said Vann is relying on "shadowy" SuperPACs to fund waves of negative television commercials against him.

"The extraordinary amount of money that has flowed into this campaign has dramatically changed things," Garamendi said. "A million-dollar television buy in Sacramento means you're basically on every commercial break."

East of Sacramento, Republican Rep. Dan Lungren, a former state attorney general, is struggling to fend off a Democratic challenger, physician Ami Bera, he barely defeated two years ago. That district is split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, with nearly 20 percent of voters registering as independent.

That California has so many competitive congressional districts illustrates the success of the 14-member citizens redistricting commission, which was authorized by voters in 2008. Two years later, voters expanded the commission's authority from state legislative races to congressional districts.

The widespread competition has attracted far more campaign money than usual to California's races.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats' official campaign arm, had reserved more than $8 million on broadcast and cable TV in the state as of Sept. 21, compared to $1.6 million last cycle, spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said.

During that same period, Republicans had reserved $7.6 million for five California races, $5.4 million for the Sacramento market alone.

"California is really the central battleground for the future of control of the House," said Dan Conston, a spokesman for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a SuperPAC aligned with House Speaker John Boehner that supports GOP candidates. "The battlefield doesn't look anything like what Democrats hoped."

Democrats counter that independent redistricting, which took away the Legislature's authority to draw political boundaries, has worked against the GOP in a state where only 30 percent of voters are registered Republican. Democrats want to snatch seats from several Republican incumbents, including Rep. Mary Bono Mack, who represents a Southern California desert district that runs through Palm Springs.

Her challenger, Democrat Raul Ruiz, is a local physician with support from a political action committee led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Democrats hold every statewide office in California, the two U.S. Senate seats and have majorities in both houses of the Legislature. Democrats also hold a 2.2 million voter registration edge over Republicans, and independents outnumber Republicans in about a dozen congressional districts.

California was once a swing state. In the 1976 general election, for example, Republican President Gerald Ford carried the state.

But the Legislature's gerrymander of legislative and congressional districts after the 1990 Census handed Democrats' control of the Assembly and Senate while protecting incumbents of both parties.

Between 2000 and 2010, just one California House seat changed party hands, when Democrat Rep. Jerry McNerney won a seat in the agriculture-heavy Central Valley from former Republican Rep. Richard Pombo.

Now even that district has changed. McNerney faces a tough general election campaign against Republican challenger Ricky Gill, a 25-year-old law school graduate who was given a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

Gill, who has been endorsed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, has proven adept at fundraising, bringing in nearly $1.8 million in campaign cash. McNerney has raised about $1.5 million.

Farther south along California's central coast, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is spending $118,000 on broadcast ads in the Santa Barbara area to support Republican Abel Maldonado, a former state lawmaker and wealthy farmer who is locked in a fierce campaign with Democratic Rep. Lois Capps.

The redistricting panel drew Capps into a Santa Barbara-San Luis Obispo county district that has just a 3-point voter registration edge for Democrats, compared to a 20-point registration advantage where she last ran.

"Her campaign has made some very, very personal attacks on my family business," Maldonado said. "I think we need folks back in Washington who are more pragmatic and reasonable and open minded, and I have a track record of doing that."

Capps countered that Maldonado's television commercials had "planted a lot of falsehoods and misled people" about her record.

"I know these communities well, and my work experience as a public health nurse is something that people understand," she said. "We have to set the record straight and win the election with a grassroots campaign."

By the end of August, SuperPACs from both sides already had spent $3.5 million on California's congressional races, ranking the state behind only Texas and Indiana for independent expenditures for state congressional contests, according to MapLight, a nonpartisan group that analyzes money's role in politics.

Democratic-leaning SuperPACs had spent about $750,000 to support Julia Brownley, a state Assemblywoman who faces a tight race against Republican state Sen. Tony Strickland in Ventura County's 26th District.

The tight races aren't limited to slugfests between Republicans and Democrats.

California's other major political reform that is in full effect for the first time this year is a new primary system that sends the top two vote-getters to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. The state's eight same-party runoffs have seen some of the most negative campaigning of all.

Two former friends, incumbent Democratic House members Rep. Brad Sherman and Rep. Howard Berman, have been making headlines for months as they battle over a single San Fernando Valley seat.

Even the 80-year-old Stark, often called the "dean" of California's congressional delegation, acknowledged at a recent gathering at an Oakland barbecue house that he faces a formidable opponent — a fellow Democrat who finished a close second in the June primary.

"I have the endorsement of every elected Democrat in the area, the support of labor, the Democratic Party and the president, and of course, well, I would like to have your endorsement as well," the 19-term incumbent told the crowd of Democratic attorneys.

Stark's challenger, Eric Swalwell, a 31-year-old prosecutor for the Alameda County District Attorney's office, grew up in Stark's new district, which was redrawn to include more moderate, inland suburbs south and east of Oakland. Stark for years has lived in Maryland and flies back to California for town halls and other events.

"He's had his time in Washington," Swalwell said in an interview. "But since he visits so infrequently, it's been very easy to say we're here, and Pete Stark is not."


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