How Republican Craig Huey did so well in CA-36

at 02:27 PM ET, 05/18/2011


A Republican does surprising well in California’s 36th district. (Craig Huey campaign photo.)
On Tuesday, California tried out the “jungle primary” for the first time and got a wild (eh?) result — a Republican may make the runoff in the overwhelmingly Democratic 36th congressional district.

With all precints reporting, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn (D) with13,137 votes or 25 percent, businessman Craig Huey (R) with 11,648 votes or 22 percent, and Secretary of State Debra Bowen (D) with11,442 votes or 21 percent.

But, nearly ten thousand late absentee and provisional ballots remain uncounted and Bowen’s campaign is not anywhere close to conceding.

“This has been a very spirited campaign and it remains very close,” said Bowen campaign manager Dan Chavez in a late-night statement. “There are 9,811 ballots that still need to be processed — more than enough to make up the difference. We are confident Debra Bowen will be in the runoff.”

Even if Bowen’s campaign right, it’s still somewhat shocking that Huey got so close.

The 36th district, which takes in beach communities south of Los Angeles, is not a swing seat by any measure. The district voted 64 percent for President Obama in 2008 and gave Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) 59 percent, in 2004.

If anything, Harman — a Blue Dog Democrat — was more conservative than her constituents.

So how did Huey, a political newcomer who doesn’t even live in the district, pull it off?

Turnout was very low — 15.4 percent — and voters were divided between many candidates. There were 16 total candidates on the ballot; five Democrats, six Republicans and five independents. The five Democrats combined to take almost 57 percent of the total vote while the six Republicans took just 41 percent. Marcy Winograd, an anti-war activist who pulled in just under ten percent of the vote, likely took liberal voters away from Bowen.

Money also helped. Huey, who runs a direct marketing company, put about $500,000 of his own fortune into the campaign, giving him more cash to spend than any of the other 16 candidates. He ran TV and radio ads and hired a top-flight consultant, Dave Gilliard.

“It’s clear that a candidate who can self-fund a campaign like this has to be taken seriously,” said Hahn spokesman Dave Jacobson. “We always assumed that there was a chance that he could potentially be in the runoff.”

Huey likely also benefited from the nastiness between Hahn and Bowen in the final days of the race. Hahn accused Bowen of taking money from “big oil,” while Bowen hit Hahn for ties to lobbyists. "The Democrats ran a very bitter campaign,” said Rob Stutzman, a California Republican strategist. “The Republicans pretty much unified around [Huey’s] candidacy.”

Huey had some high-profile supporters encouraging Republicans to turnout, including Reps. Dana Rohrabacher, Ed Royce and Tom McClintock, and Indiana Rep. Mike Pence. His campaign says they weren’t surprised by his showing. “We’ve had a good feeling about this for some weeks,” said deputy communications director Hope Howell.

“He ran a highly focused tea-party Fox News type campaign,” said AllenHoffenblum, former political coordinator of the state GOP and the publisher of the California Target Book. Tea party activists knocked on doors for Huey, an outspoken conservative who publishes websites and newsletters for evangelical Christians. But Hoffenblum doubted that Huey could make that strategy work in the runoff. “I have to believe the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee wont take any chances.”

DCCC deputy executive director Jennifer Crider said in a statement that regardless of what happens, between Hahn and Bowen “we are confident a Democrat will win CA-36 in July.”

It’s worth remembering that special elections rarely predict much, even on the local level. That said, this race might make a real difference for Huey. Come 2012, redistricting, which is being handled by a non-partisan commission, could re-shape the lines and political leanings of the 36th. Huey’s surprisingly strong showing could be a launchpad for a race with more GOP-friendly odds.

 
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