Bill Whalen: Politi-Cal

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Such a Thing as a Vulnerable Republican?

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California Rep. Dan Lungren is something of an exotic creature in the zoo of Golden State Republicans. He’s served more than a decade-and-a-half in Congress. He’s held two statewide offices (appointed State Treasurer; twice elected California’s Attorney General). And he was the Republican nominee for governor in 1998.

Lungren: toss-up race or toss out the polls?


But in this election, Lungren holds a more dubious distinction: the only Republican member of California’s congressional delegation potentially in trouble. 

Earlier this week, Congressional Quarterly moved Lungren into its “toss-up” category, the only Republican to be downgraded to that level in its latest assessment of the House races. Nationwide, all of three GOP seats have earned this rating. The other two: Illinois’ 10th CD, vacated by senatorial hopeful Mark Kirk; and Hawaii’s 1st CD (the congressional district in which Barack Obama grew up), which has belonged to freshman Charles Djou since his special-election win this past May. 

So why is Lungren in trouble? And, more to the point, is he really in hot water? 

The answer: probably not as much as the media would have you believe. 

One challenge facing Lungren is the quirky design given to his district. California’s 3rd CD has a flying-wing design that stretches east from the California-Nevada border, south of Lake Tahoe, all the way west to Vacaville, roughly an hour’s drive from San Francisco. Its heart is the greater Sacramento region. That means Lungren’s constituents run the ideological gamut from hunters and open-space lovers to state employees and spillover from the Democratic-heavy Bay Area. Few California districts are as diverse. 

Challenge #2: the district vacillates, depending on who’s at the top of the ticket. Just take a look at the last three votes in Sacramento County. In 2004, Democrat John Kerry edged George W. Bush by 3.3% (Bush won districtwide).  Two years later, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger raked in 60.5%. But forget about Republican coattails: Lungren’s numbers in Sac County fell from 62%, in 2004, to 59.5% in the Arnold landslide of 2006. 

Then came 2008 and the Democrats’ turn to dance. Barack Obama defeated John McCain by 19% in Sacramento County; Lungren’s support fell to 49.5%. And when an incumbent falls under 50%, it sets off the alarm bells. 

It’s an interesting turn of events for a district that’s been reliably Democratic or Republican the past 80 years (Democrats held the seat almost uninterrupted from FDR’s first term to Jimmy Carter’s midterm in 1978; Republicans have held it since Bill Clinton’s second midterm in 1998).  

So getting back to our question: is Lungren really in trouble? He is, if you believe this week’s Public Policy Polling survey that has him ahead of Democrat Ami Bera by only 8 points, 46%-38%.  But that poll was conducted for the liberal Daily Kos — and the pollsters were in the field right after Bera had launched his first attack ad against Lungren, which goes after the Republican incumbent for receiving both a congressional salary and a state pension. 

If Lungren’s on shaky ground, it hasn’t shown up on the seismographs at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Per the DCCC’s latest expenditure report, there’s only one Republican incumbent on the Democrats’ target list: Djou, the aforementioned Hawaii first-termer. 

Money talks loudest in politics. And the lack of money pouring into California’s 3rd CD may say more than any poll.


Written by Bill Whalen

September 23, 2010 at 7:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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