Democrats see real fight in California special election

at 05:05 PM ET, 06/22/2011


Janice Hahn might have a real race on her hands. (Reed Saxon - AP Photo)
When Republican Craig Huey got into the runoff in California’s 36th district special election, it came as a surprise. An even bigger surprise: it looks like Huey might actually have an outside chance at winning.

Before the May 17 “jungle primary” to replace retired Rep. Jane Harman (D) observers were expecting a race between two liberal Democrats, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn and California Secretary of State Debra Bowen. Instead, Huey came in second to Hahn thanks to low turnout and a fractured Democratic field. Both advanced to a run-off that Hahn seemed almost certain to win.

Yet Democrats appear to be treating this race as a real fight. Hahn’s campaign went hard after a third-party web ad that depicted the Democrat as a stripper. Even after Huey personally denounced the video as racist and sexist, Hahn alleged coordination between him and the outside group that made it.

“We’re fighting hard in that race,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told the Post Wednesday. “It’s not as easy a race, as overwhelming a race and Democratic seat as people like to think it is.” In reference to the anti-Hahn ad, Pelosi said, “It's a contest, and they know that.”

This is a district that went to John Kerry in 2004 by 59 percent and President Obama in 2008 by 64 percent. In the special election primary, the five Democrats combined took almost 57 percent of the total, while the six Republicans took just 41 percent. So what gives?

Huey is a millionaire who has poured half a million dollars into his campaign. He’s new to politics, so he has no record to defend. The election is on July 12, a week after the fourth of July holiday in a city where politics is not a major concern. There was also a bitter Democratic primary, in which Hahn went negative on Bowen and Bowen supporters painted Hahn as an unscrupulous insider.

"A July 12 election is not a time when very many Democratic voters are awake and paying attention,” said Eric Bauman, chairman of the Los Angeles Democratic Party. “The Democratic party is not going to fall asleep at the wheel and lose a seat that certainly belongs in our column.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee just sent out a press release attacking Hahn, showing there’s some GOP interest in the race “Huey deserves a lot of credit for competing in such a heavily Democratic district,” said NRCC spokesman Tyler Houlton.

While Huey has focused on the economy and stayed vague about his other positions, Hahn has been working overtime to paint her opponent as extreme on social issues. Mailers and ads compared Huey to former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

“We’ve always known this was going to be a competitive campaign,” said Hahn campaign manager Dave Jacobson. “Once voters know the difference between the candidates, it’s clear that they will side with Hahn.”

Special elections are always unpredictable — as Huey’s unexpected second-place finish showed — and Democrats can’t be caught off-guard again.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

 
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