There is just one reason why House Speaker John Boehner has been on the Central Coast stumping for GOP Congressional candidates Abel Maldonado and Sen. Tony Strickland.
For that same reason President Barack Obama put his stamp of approval on Strickland’s rival, Julia Brownley, while popular U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein campaigned alongside incumbent U.S. Rep. Lois Capps in Santa Barbara in late October.
The Capps-Maldonado matchup in California’s 24th District and the Strickland-Brownley brawl in the 26th are among of the most closely-watched congressional races in the nation. They represent two out of a few dozen house races that will determine whether Boehner gets to keep his job as speaker or whether minority leader Nancy Pelosi gets to make a most improbable return to the speaker’s chair.
Both races are viewed as close, with Capps, a 14-year incumbent, having a thin voter registration edge over Maldonado, the former lieutenant governor of California and once a rising star in the GOP. But for races this important, polling is extremely limited and as we shall discuss, Ventura County’s media market makes it hard to mobilize and motivate voters.
The newfound competitiveness of the 24th and 26th districts reflects two voter-driven changes to California election law. First, the open primary, championed by Maldonado in Sacramento, benefited Brownley, a relative newcomer to Ventura County who finished second, narrowly beating independent Linda Parks, a Ventura County supervisor.
Second, California’s independent restricting commission took away from Capps her embarrassingly safe “ribbon of shame” district of coastal communities and replaced it with a much more competitive combination of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, with a small slice of Ventura County thrown in.
The closeness of the race also reflects the rising role of media and the Latino vote. Media and media buys in the post-Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court mean that Maldonado, Capps and proxies for both parties are spending millions of dollars pounding away at each other on local television and cable. It’s a bonanza for the broadcasters, it puts huge pressure on candidate fundraising and could, at the margins, influence votes. I haven’t seen this many negative ads on television in years.
With no countywide broadcast signal to be had, Ventura County has been largely a direct-mail effort, with Brownley and Strickland trading barbs in viciously nasty flyers that seem to arrive daily in the mail. On the stump, the folksy Strickland plays up his local roots and tries to present his green energy bona fides, while Brownley pushes education funding, women’s rights and support for Naval Base Ventura County.
I am going to hazard one prediction about the Congressional races in the 24th and 26th districts of California. It is this: Whatever the outcomes in 2012, these districts will remain competitive for quite some time.
In the 24th, even if she scores a convincing win, it’s not clear how many more times Rep. Capps, 74, will want to face a well-funded challenger with millions of outside dollars to spend.
In the 26th, the district’s demographics increasingly will skew toward the Democrats — unless the GOP gets a radical policy makeover.
The net result is that even if the home-grown Strickland wins in 2012, he too will face serious and well-funded challengers in the years ahead.
Which brings us to the Latino voter. The largest cities in these two districts are Santa Maria and Oxnard, where growing Latino populations mean that Hispanic voters increasingly will be the deciding factor in these races.
In the primary, Maldonado, a successful Santa Maria strawberry grower, faced a divided GOP that did not rally behind him because of his moderate stances on taxes and immigration. Since then, Capps, who claimed the title of most likeable member of Congress for the past four years, has pounded him over an ongoing dispute with the IRS. Yet he still has made a fight of this race.
Brownley, should she beat Strickland, will owe a huge debt to Latino leaders such as Dr. Manuel Lopez and Hank Lacayo, who have the ability to get out votes and raise money. Strickland, should he win, will find it extremely difficult to remain in line with his party’s positions on issues such as education and immigration reform and successfully defend his seat in 2014.
The waning of the 2010 Tea Party surge means that the GOP is likely to lose seats this year, but most experts think Boehner will get to keep his job. What will happen in 2014 remains unclear, but it will set the stage for 2016, a presidential election year where turnout is likely to be very high. If control of the House gets down to counting single districts, then California’s 24th and 26th districts will loom larger and larger on the political landscape.
And community leaders who can deliver a few thousand votes in key precincts in north Santa Maria, the Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Paula, south Oxnard or Port Hueneme might just become power brokers on the national stage.
• Contact Editor Henry Dubroff at [email protected]