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Tight race in California, but upset not expected

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Republicans are no longer feeling enthusiastic about Tuesday special election in California’s 36th district, an overwhelmingly blue seat that — briefly — appeared to be up for grabs.

In recent weeks, there were reports that Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn (D) was in real danger of losing to businessman Craig Huey (R) in the special election to replace former Rep. Jane Harman (D). Even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi warned that the seat was not safe.

But despite publicly saying the race remains competitive, Republicans are privately acknowledging that they would be hugely surprised to win this seat.

Huey, who surprisingly finished second in the so-called “jungle primary” in mid-May, has spent heavily from his own pocket — about $800,000 to date — to remain viable in this strongly Democratic southern California district. But in the second fundraising quarter, which close at the end of June, Hahn led in fundraising, and Republicans in Washington haven’t been helping Huey out financially.

Still, Huey’s team is brimming with optimism. “We have a great chance of winning,” campaign manager Jimmy Camp told The Fix. “Republicans here are excited, Democrats are sleepy.”

The campaign has not taken a poll in over a month, Camp said — explaining that he’s drawing his conclusion from what he sees “out on the streets.”

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee communications director Jennifer Crider said that “our get-out-the-vote operation is very aggressive.” And Hahn strategist Joe Trippi added that “we’ve got a strong field organization, we feel very good about the turnout.” Democratic polling shows Hahn up eight points.

Both sides have gone negative, which seems to suggest either there was some tightening in the race or Hahn is taking no chances in a low turnout special election — or maybe both.

“This is a mid-summer, mid-cycle election. Turnout is always notoriously low and that typically bodes well or at least better for Republican candidates,” explained senior campaign adviser John Shallman. “It’s a race with a lot of voter fatigue, it’s something we’ve always taken very very seriously.”

Republicans have made Hahn’s involvement in a program that aims to rehabilitate gang members a cornerstone of their attacks. The Huey campaign distributed DVDs of a 2008 local Fox News affiliate’s report on the subject; the National Republican Congressional Committee sent text messages to voters about the story. (The report, which suggested that Hahn funded and intervened on behalf of gang members, has been refuted by another local news organization.)

It’s a risky move. Voters could be reminded of a third-party ad attacking Hahn on that very issue, one that used a photoshop of her face on a stripper’s body. In last week’s debate, Huey said the ad was “the most harmful thing to my campaign ever done.” Moreover, taking this tack has shifted discussion away from Huey’s strongest subject — the dismal economy — and towards a confusing he-said/she-said over something that happened years ago.

Hahn has hit Huey hard too. For weeks, she focused on Huey’s socially conservative views, attempting to tie the Republican to former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. In recent days she has accused Huey of scamming seniors through direct mail marketing. (Huey says he had nothing to do with the actions of several former clients.) Democrats are now drawing attention to the fact that Huey is accused of not paying child support.

In short, it’s a nasty fight to the finish. Given the minuscule turnout expected in a special election just eight days removed from July 4th, anything is possible.

But it appears as though the strong Democratic lean of the district — party registration favors Democrats by 18 points — should keep this seat in their column tomorrow night.

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