GOP sharks circle McNerney

March 5, 2010


If Republicans take back the U.S. House of Representatives in November it will be because they win seats like the one held by Jerry McNerney – a two-term moderate-liberal in the moderately conservative 11th Congressional District of California.

Republicans clearly smell blood in the political water – six GOP candidates are vying in the June primary for the opportunity to knock off McNerney and take back a seat held for 14 years by conservative Republican Richard Pombo. McNerney, with the aid of environmentalists who hated Pombo’s efforts to loosen endangered species regulations, dethroned Pombo by seven points four years ago. McNerney followed that in 2008 with a 10-point victory over Dean Andal, thanks to Obama’s ample coattails.

But all of that is ancient history due to the Tea Party uprising, anti-Obamacare town hall protests, Republican gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey and the 8.2-magnitude Scott Brown earthquake in Massachusetts. For much of his short political career McNerney (with the help of some of the liberal media) has portrayed himself as a moderate while voting lockstep with Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats on federal stimulus, cap-and-trade/tax and the government takeover of health care among other issues. When town hall protests of Obamacare were at their height last August McNerney opted for a safer phone-in “town hall” in which callers are vetted by staff and there are no follow-up questions, protest signs or demonstrations.

At a recent phone town hall, McNerney did not mention Pelosi or tout Obamacare or cap-and-trade. But he did defend the stimulus, saying it has brought in $60 million to his district, creating or saving 8,000-9,000 jobs. Like many Democrats, McNerney has found the jobs religion. He acknowledged the widespread economic pain in the district and several times said his top priority is creating jobs, especially with good pay and benefits. He didn’t say how he would do that, however, other than providing more certainty from Washington on tax credits and regulations affecting businesses.

The 11th Congressional District election may be one of the few and perhaps the only competitive congressional district race in California this year, due to the gerrymandering of most districts to favor one party. In marked contrast, there is near parity in party registration in the 11th District; Republicans outnumber Democrats by four-tenths of a percent, or about 1,500 votes. As a result, the goal becomes winning the hearts and minds of the 65,000 independents who decline to state a party affiliation. The GOP candidates are salivating at the prospect of hanging Nancy Pelosi around McNerney’s neck, helping overcome his advantages of money, incumbency and name recognition.

“The people are ready for change, pardon the Obama saying. They have had enough,” said Robert Beadles, a 32-year-old small business owner in Lodi, which is in an area with 20 percent unemployment. “I hear lots of things – mostly the financial hardship that they are going through. They want jobs and less regulation on businesses, so businesses will stay here.”

The sprawling 11th Congressional District, which stretches from Galt to Gilroy, is split into two very different geographical and ideological areas: the San Joaquin Valley with 70 percent of the district’s residents, many of them fiscally and socially conservative; and the East Bay and Silicon Valley, which is more upscale, mostly fiscally conservative and more socially moderate or liberal.

Asked about McNerney’s newfound emphasis on reducing unemployment, Beadles said, “He tells us he wants jobs, jobs, jobs – they are obviously government jobs. Every time they create a government job they are wiping out a private sector job. Cap-and-trade, the health bill are job killers. People are waking up and will realize that jobs, jobs, jobs are lies, lies, lies.” Unfortunately for Beadles, he has a hard time asking people for money. So his meager campaign treasury is mostly self-funded.

Better situated to challenge McNerney is David Harmer, who raised nearly $1 million in a quixotic effort to win the 10th Congressional District (18-point Democratic registration advantage) election last fall against lifetime politician John Garamendi. Harmer won a majority of the independents, but lost by 10 points to Garamendi. Ironically, the rap on Garamendi in that campaign – that he lived outside the district – is now being applied to Harmer, a San Ramon attorney, in his 11th District run. Tenth District voters obviously dismissed the carpetbagger critique and Harmer believes they will as well in the 11th.

“This is a great year to be a conservative running for office, because the difference between the two parties has not been been so clear in 30 years,” said Harmer. “Since then the Republican Party has on more than one occasion lost its way and muddied the distinctions between the two parties. So I am not surprised that the people fired us. But in that process it’s clear to me that the party learned important lessons. All of the motivation is now coming from grass roots conservatives who are determined to reinstate limited government.”

Like the other Republican candidates, Harmer is confident of victory in November, but he’s not taking McNerney lightly. Noting that McNerney spent $3 million in 2008, Harmer hopes to raise $2.5 million, spending $500,000 of it to win the primary. “We will retake this seat,” he said. “It certainly won’t be automatic and won’t be easy. It’s going to be hard work. There are tremendous advantages  of incumbency. McNerney starts with a good chunk of change in the bank and will raise more.” But Harmer says he’s battle-tested and ready. “On election day we won – we lost in the absentee ballots,” he said. “If I can do that to Garamendi, McNerney doesn’t scare me a bit.”

But another candidate, Elizabeth Emken, a Danville advocate for autism research and former IBM financial analyst, believes she has several advantages in a fight against McNerney: she’s a fresh face and a fiscal and social conservative who’s also compassionate with a record of fighting for the special needs community. Like Harmer, she believes she’s well positioned to attract the East Bay/Silicon Valley portion of the district.

Asked about McNerney’s vulnerability, she said, “His voting record is with Nancy Pelosi 95 percent of the time. I believe he’s very vulnerable with the (political) wave that’s been going on, the Massachusetts experience and poll numbers going our way. His voting record so aligned with Nancy Pelosi is a huge exposure for him. I am truly looking forward to beating McNerney. My support is very broad and deep. People who are involved politically are recognizing that the individual who can beat McNerney needs to be from the west side of the district.”

Begging to differ is Brad Goehring, a fourth-generation grape grower from Clements, whom Emken criticizes as a Pombo clone. Interestingly, Pombo is also running for election to Congress this year, but has chosen to do it in the 19th Congressional District rather than try a rematch in the 11th District where he still makes his home. Goehring blames Pombo’s defeat on spending by environmental groups that moved 11 people to the district to work full-time against Pombo.

While all of the candidates are contributing to their campaigns, Goehring has been the most generous in putting his money where his mouth is, loaning his campaign $450,000 to go with another $154,000 from donations. Saying that he’s the only candidate who was born and raised in the district, he believes he will receive strong support from valley voters, providing a major advantage in the primary and general election. Like the other candidates, he believes the timing is right to knock off McNerney.

“The whole momentum of the country is definitely an asset to take him out,” said Goehring. “I think voters are very aware. We have a lot of things going on in this country that we haven’t had happen before. The Tea Party movement rallied 15 million people in 10 months. Fox News is educating people. We have the Internet. People are getting the word out and communicating in forms they never communicated before. McNerney has never been independent enough of his own party to represent our district. He’s a party guy and does what the party wants, how they want, whenever they want.”

The other two GOP candidates are Tony Amador, a former U.S. Marshal from Lodi, and Jeff Takada, a teacher who lives in Manteca.

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