Dogfight Over New 26th House District


JAN. 8, 2012


California’s 2012 redistricting already is shaking up state and even federal politics. The candidates’ dogfight for the new 26th congressional district could determine whether Democrats or Republicans control the U.S. House of Representatives after the November election — or at least the degree of Republican control.

Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Simi Valley, announced on Saturday that he’ll retire from Congress. He currently represents the old 24th Congressional District, which was drawn after the 2000 U.S. Census.

Gallegly would have had to run an uphill challenge against Rep. Buck McKeon in the new 25th District, based on the 2010 U.S. Census. McKeon has been in Congress since 1993 and is chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee.

Gallegly’s other option was a tough general election fight in the 26th Congressional district. The new Ventura County-based district, which includes Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, Moorpark and Camarillo, gives Democrats a slight voter-registration advantage.

However, the district has conservative tendencies and voted in favor of Proposition 8, California’s anti-gay marriage initiative. According to Redistricting Partners’ analysis of the district, it went handily to Obama in 2008 and slightly favored Whitman in 2010.

Gallegly’s retirement creates the opportunity for several county politicians to make their moves on the long-coveted seat. The Democratic side already features five announced candidates: Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett, Moorpark Councilman David Pollock, community activist Zeke Ruelas, businessman David Cruz Thayne and Oxnard Harbor District board member Jess Herrera.

On the Republican side, state Senator Tony Strickland, R-Santa Barbara, could be challenged by County Supervisor Linda Parks, a slow-growth environmental activist.

What to Watch for in CD 26

10. State Senator Tony Strickland Will Clear the Republican Field

Strickland will have the support of the Republican establishment, both in the county and on Capitol Hill. Ventura County’s field of top-tier Republican candidates has winnowed in the past five years. Bob Brooks, a popular Republican county sheriff and close Gallegly friend, passed on the chance to take over the seat in 2006, when Gallegly first flirted with retirement. Tom McClintock, another longtime county Republican stalwart, couldn’t wait for Gallegly’s retirement and moved to a Northern California congressional seat in 2008.

Other than Strickland, there’s only one Republican elected official in Ventura County with grassroots support, name ID and a strong fundraising prowess: County Supervisor Peter Foy. He told me Saturday night that he’s supporting Strickland. It’s perhaps Strickland’s most important local endorsement because it clears Strickland’s right flank.

Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, a registered Republican, won’t gain any traction with any of the county’s Republican establishment if she decides to enter the race. Ventura County Republican Chairman Mike Osborn, a close Strickland ally, led the county party’s independent expenditure campaign against Parks in 2010. Republican women proved to be the key voter demographic in that race. Expect the same in this match-up between Tony Strickland and Parks. If Parks is able to make the runoff, Republican women will be the most crucial voting bloc.

On Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., expect House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, to quickly lock down key endorsements and financial support for Strickland. The Strickland-McCarthy friendship dates back to McCarthy’s tenure as Assembly Republican leader.

Strickland served as an important member of McCarthy’s inner circle in Sacramento, and he’ll want to add Strickland as a loyal member of his team in Washington. (Fun fact: The pair overcame a one-time “young Republican” feud. McCarthy came up through the Bill Thomas machine; Strickland the more conservative crowd. The split was so bad it led to the creation of two separate young Republican organizations.)

9. Left-Wing Fight: Latino Democrat vs. Environmentalist Liberal

The CD 26 race could turn into a nasty fight between a Latino Democrat and a progressive environmentalist. Ruelas and Herrera will fight to be the consensus Latino candidate, while Bennett and Parks jockey to be the environmentalist candidate. (Yes, even though Parks is a registered Republican.) One quarter of the voting age population is Latino. Unless another Latino candidate enters the race, Herrera, a five-term commissioner on the Oxnard Harbor District, likely has the advantage over Ruelas.

The environmentalist battle might be avoided altogether. Bennett and Parks share the same base of anti-growth supporters. Both have served for decades as leaders in the SOAR movement (Save Open-Space and Agricultural Resource). SOAR opposes property rights in favor of protecting obscure wildlife.

In late December, the Ventura County Star reported that Bennett was having second thoughts about the race. If Bennett drops out, he’ll likely support Parks, despite her Republican registration. Bennett has endorsed Parks in the past and even contributed money to her supervisorial campaigns. Expect environmentalists to unite early in an “anyone but Strickland” coalition.

8. Regional Split: West County (Oxnard) vs. East County (Thousand Oaks)

Ventura County’s natural geographic divide is the Conejo Grade.  East County includes Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park and Moorpark. It’s wealthier, more Republican and increasingly moderate.

West County, which includes Port Hueneme, Oxnard and Ventura, is the major source of Democratic votes, due to its working class and primarily Latino population.

The first signs of a geographic split will be internally, between the environmentalists Bennett and Parks. Bennett represents West County; Parks East County. Parks should have the edge because she’ll have support from a broad base of community leaders in the East, while some of Bennett’s Democratic support will go to the Latino consensus candidate. Prior to her election to the county board, Parks served as a member of the Thousand Oaks City Council. Assuming the environmentalist crowd consolidates behind Parks, there’ll still be a geographic split with the Latino candidate from Oxnard.

Strickland has represented all of these areas in either the state Assembly or Senate, with most of his support coming from Camarillo, Moorpark and Thousand Oaks.

7. The Heretofore Unknown Wealthy Republican Who Wants to be Called “Congressman”

Strickland’s biggest competitor for traditional Republican votes could come from the heretofore unknown wealthy Republican who wants to be called “congressman.”

In 2006 and 2008, wealthy attorney and businessman Michael Tenenbaum ran to replace Gallegly. He seized on Gallegly’s “will-he-or-won’t-he” moment to fill that role.

Another wealthy Republican could follow the Tenenbaum model. Gallegly has held the seat for 24 years, so you can expect a few wealthy businessmen to think twice before passing on their chance at a congressional seat.

6. Big Labor Will Decide Who Makes the Runoff

Big Labor will play heavily in this race, but it’s unclear whom they’ll support. Both Parks and Bennett have strong, pro-union records on the Board of Supervisors. Herrera and Ruelas are former and current longshoremen.

Labor could stay out of the primary and keep its powder dry for a general election fight against Strickland. Or, it could decide to get behind the potentially stronger candidate, Parks.  There’s even the possibility that a few unions might consider supporting Strickland.

Whomever Big Labor gets behind will be the candidate to make the runoff.

5. Strickland’s  Pre-Primary GOP Endorsement Undermined by … Tony Strickland

Parks’s Republican registration, despite being in name only, complicates Strickland’s chances for a pre-primary endorsement from the California Republican Party. A party endorsement could provide crucial financial support. During last year’s internal party endorsement debate, party kingpins Jon Fleischman and Mike Schroeder proposed an easy pre-primary endorsement process that would favor conservative candidates. Their plan was defeated in favor of a complicated local convention system.

Under the current party rules, two-thirds of the county central committee members in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties must approve a pre-primary endorsement. Then, two-thirds of the California Republican Party Board of Directors must authorize the endorsement.

It’s a complicated but feasible hurdle for Strickland to overcome. Of course, Strickland has no one to blame but himself. He provided critical support for the more complicated plan. It was the brainchild of none other than McCarthy. The question will be if fringe, anti-Strickland Republicans can marshal enough votes to block an endorsement at the local level.

4. Outside Groups Will Play Heavily in the Race

Environmental groups, labor unions, Indian tribes and business interests will all play in this congressional race. Strickland, a former president of the California chapter of the influential Club for Growth, can expect major support from anti-tax, pro-growth advocates.

Parks is a quintessential RINO — Republican in Name Only. She’ll ignite the ire of anti-tax, anti-union activists throughout the country. Think Dede Scozzafava, the New York Republican politician just appointed to a post by liberal Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo; but Parks sports a record of quashing property rights to save squirrels. The Sierra Club and state public employee unions will play in the race in favor of the consensus liberal candidate.

3. The Most Expensive Congressional Race in California History

If you’re a Republican donor in California, chances are you’ve already received a fundraising pitch from Strickland. It’s been 24 hours since Gallegly announced his retirement. That’s enough time for Strickland to contact several hundred donors.

One of the best fundraisers in the state, I’d look for Strickland to post a massive fundraising number at the end of the first reporting period. (Yes, I just raised expectations.) The combination of Strickland’s fundraising and outside groups will make the 26th congressional district one of the most expensive races in California history.

2. Linda Parks Will Re-Register as a Democrat

A potential game changer in this race is when Parks re-registers as a Democrat. In a debate, I’d ask Parks to name the last Republican presidential candidate she has supported. (Not that anyone can blame her for abandoning the anti-freedom Sen. John McCain.)

If Parks re-registered as a Democrat, she’d have the formal support of her Democratic friends and allies. Check Parks’s past endorsement record and you’ll find a “Who’s Who” of Democratic activists. It’d be so much easier for her to campaign as a Democrat instead of as a moderate Republican.

If Parks fails to make the runoff, look for her to endorse the Latino Democrat, regardless of her party registration.

1. The Race Will Remain Undecided for Days, Possibly Weeks

Get the lawyers ready for a heated ballot review process in November. It is easier to list the races that “Landslide Tony” has won easily than identify the races he’s barely squeaked out. Most of his victories have been decided weeks after Election Day.

The only race Strickland has won by a comfortable margin was his final re-election to the State Assembly in 2002. In 1998 and 2000, Strickland beat schoolteacher Roz McGrath by a hair. The 2008 state Senate race against former Assemblywoman Hannah Beth Jackson took weeks of ballot checking before a winner was declared.

And then there’ll be the rematch for District 26 in 2014.

Bonus Prediction: Epic Ground War Between Strickland and Parks

The best ground campaign activists in California Republican politics will reunite to run the ground campaign in this race. Strickland has trained a network of activists and should be expected to reinstitute his flop-house walk program. That’s where poor college students are convinced to spend day and night walking for the cause. Look for the best political operatives in conservative politics to forgo their lucrative state salaries and temporarily take LWOP — leave without pay — to support Strickland’s bid.

The Strickland machine will face its toughest test yet in Parks’s environmental operation. Every activist who has chained himself to a tree to save the spotted owl will mobilize to support Parks. She is a serious and credible candidate with high name ID. If she doesn’t re-register as a Democrat, this may be the first and only race to feature a Republican versus Republican general election match-up.

(Full disclosure: The author previously worked for Tony Strickland, a candidate for District 26.)

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