On Tuesday, July 12 there will be a special election to fill a vacant seat in the United States House of Representatives for the 36th Congressional District in California. For some reason, the race has drawn much less attention and media coverage than did other recent special elections elsewhere in the country. As a result, most Americans — even some voters in the 36th District itself — don’t know much about the candidates or how the race is unfolding.
This post will fix all that, and explain everything you need to know about the CA-36 July 12 election.
Front-runner Janice Hahn, a Democratic city councilmember in Los Angeles, is facing off against upstart newcomer Craig Huey, a small business owner nominally on the Republican ticket but hewing closely to Tea Party and libertarian platforms.
Hahn and Huey emerged as the two top vote-getters in a hotly contested primary election that featured no fewer than 16 candidates vying for a chance to face off in the general election. Hahn was expected to finish near the top, but she was supposed to be joined by her main rival, fellow Democrat Debra Bowen; instead, a brutal primary campaign damaged Bowen just enough to allow a surprise come-from-behind second-place finish by populist outsider Craig Huey.
As expected, Hahn is now leading Huey in the heavily Democratic district, but by not nearly as much as she should be. Hahn claims a 9-percentage-point lead; Huey claims he’s within striking distance at around 2 or 3 points behind; the only poll released so far had Hahn up by a mere 5 points — just within the margin of error.
The race at this point seems to pivot on Bowen voters, who are a large enough bloc to play a kingmaker role. Under normal circumstances, Bowen voters, almost all of whom are left-leaning liberals, would throw their support behind fellow Democrat Hahn. But Hahn’s vicious negative attacks against Bowen in the primary so infuriated liberals that many seem content to stay home and let Hahn fend for herself. And if Huey wins, all the better; Bowen plans to return for another shot at the seat in 2012, and a conservative like Huey should in theory be easy pickin’s for a takedown in a Presidential election year.
Who’s Who in the CA-36 Special Election
Jane Harman — Long-time 18-year Democratic incumbent congresswoman for CA-36. Handily won every election since the district lines were redrawn in 2002 with no challengers ever coming within 25 points of her. Resigned unexpectedly on February 28 2011, abandoning what was likely a safe lifetime seat in Congress to instead take a job at a think-tank.
Debra Bowen — Presumed heir-apparent to Harman’s congressional seat; had been waiting for years for Harman to retire. The closest match to Harman ideologically amongst the various candidates, she also had high name recognition in the district as she has held various political offices here for two decades. Expected to easily win the primary, she instead was relegated to a humiliating third place after fellow Democrat Janice Hahn ambushed her with vicious campaign tactics. As a result, Bowen lost her place in the run-off election.
Janice Hahn — Well-known Los Angeles Democratic career politician, with extremely high name recognition in the district, having been the area’s City Council representative for many years. Expected to come in second against Debra Bowen in the primary, and then to lose against her in the run-off election, Hahn instead knocked Bowen out of the race with aggressive negative campaigning, opening the door to a little known Tea Party candidate to sneak into second and thus into the general election.
Craig Huey — Shock second-place finisher in the primary election, he even came close to taking first place overall. A political newcomer who was a complete unknown until his surprise out-of-the-blue victory, Huey successfully positioned himself as the Tea Party candidate, calling for smaller government, deficit reduction, lower taxes and budgetary restraint. Running as a Republican against Hahn in a strongly Democratic district, he nonetheless has kept the general election close with a strong grassroots campaign.
1992-2010: CA-36 elects Democrats in nearly every election at every level.
Feb. 28 2011: Incumbent Democratic congresswoman Jane Harman resigns her seat to take a job at a think-tank, setting in motion a special election to fill her newly vacant position.
May 17 2011: Primary election; Janice Hahn and Craig Huey emerge victorious amongst a large and contentious field of candidates.
June, 2011: Outside PAC group unaffiliated with the Huey campaign releases offensive YouTube rap video parody attacking Hahn for her support of a program to give millions of taxpayer dollars to convicted violent gang members as part of purported “gang amelioration” efforts. The ad draws national attention but backfires and causes more damage to Huey’s campaign than it does to Hahn’s.
Early July, 2011: The general campaign begins to turn nasty as Hahn, stunned by poll results that show her lead is razor-thin, releases several underhanded negative attack ads against Huey.
July 12, 2011: General election day.
California’s 36th Congressional District covers some of the choicest real estate in the country, stretching along the coastline of Los Angeles County from Venice in the north to San Pedro in the south, including the beach communities Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, Torrance, and adjacent areas of Los Angeles city.
The area is strongly Democratic, and in past years has elected Democratic candidates at every level of government, from local to federal, in almost every election. In the time since the current district lines were drawn after the 2000 census, the only Republican who has won a plurality in CA-36 is (of course) Arnold Schwarzenegger, a liberal Republican governor whose mega-celebrity status enabled him to win even in traditional Democratic strongholds up and down the state. But aside from that one exception, CA-36 has been Democratic all the way. Here are some typical results from past elections since 2004 (other races show a similar Democratic tilt):
United States President
2004 Kerry 59.0% vs. Bush 39.6%
2008 Obama 64.4% vs. McCain 33.5%
United States House of Representatives
2004 Jane Harman (D) 62.0% vs. Paul Whitehead (R) 33.5%
2006 Jane Harman (D) 63.4% vs. Brian Gibson (R) 32.0%
2008 Jane Harman (D) 68.64% vs. Brian Gibson (R) 31.36%
2010 Jane Harman (D) 59.62% vs. Mattie Fein (R) 34.74%
Note how even in the “wave year” of 2010 when Republicans won races in Democratic districts all across the country, CA-36 still handed the congressional election to the Democratic candidate by a crushing 25-point margin.
Those who aren’t familiar with the area may not know much about these particular parts of Los Angeles, so I’ll present here a primer on the reputations of selected cities in the district. (These are of course generalizations based on “conventional wisdom,” and are not scientific; take with a grain of salt.)