A Republican businessman is vying for an upset in a U.S. House special election in Southern California today, running a largely self-financed race in a bid for victory in a traditionally Democratic district.
The campaign to replace U.S. Representative Jane Harman, a Democrat, pits Republican Craig Huey, making his first bid for public office, against Democrat Janice Hahn, a Los Angeles City Council member and scion of a prominent local political family.
Harman gave up her seat early this year to become president and director of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She won re-election in 2010 by about 25 percentage points, and in the 2008 presidential vote Barack Obama carried the House district by 30 percentage points -- evidence of its Democratic tilt.
Yet with unemployment at 11.7 percent in California as of May, the U.S. and the state struggling with their budgets and turnout low in special elections, Republicans see an opportunity for an upset victory.
“On a traditional political landscape, Craig Huey shouldn’t have any chance of winning at all,” said Dan Schnur, head of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Huey could win, though, because “angry voters do unusual things,” Schnur said.
The district encompasses much of Los Angeles County’s South Bay area, including several beach communities. Long a center for the defense and aerospace industries, the district’s major employers include Chicago-based Boeing Co.
“We’re fighting hard in that race,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat whose district is based in San Francisco, told the Washington Post on June 22. “It’s not as easy a race, as overwhelming a race and Democratic seat, as people like to think it is.”
Huey, 61, has mobilized the district’s fiscally conservative Tea Party activists in his campaign, voters who helped him finish second to Hahn among 15 candidates in a May 17 primary in which the two top finishers -- regardless of party -- would face off in the special election. California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, a Democrat who some state political analysts had predicted would emerge as Hahn’s opponent, trailed Huey by less than 1,000 votes.
Huey, owner of a marketing company, has poured more than $880,000 of his own money into his campaign, accounting for the bulk of the almost $1.1 million he has collected, according to MAPLight.org, a nonpartisan research organization based in Berkeley, California.
He has criticized Hahn as a “career politician” who supports the type of policies responsible for federal and state fiscal woes. He pledged to work to cut government spending and taxes if sent to Washington.
Hahn, 59, is the daughter of a longtime Los Angeles county commissioner, the late Kenneth Hahn, and the sister of former Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn. Janice Hahn first won her city council seat in 2001, and in her current campaign is backed by women’s organizations, labor unions and environmental groups. She has raised about $1.3 million, most of it coming from individual contributions, according to the MAPLight group.
In ads, Hahn has linked Huey to former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, and accused him of pushing an “extremist right-wing agenda” that would benefit big business.
Taking a cue from Democrat Kathy Hochul, who in May won a House special election in a traditionally Republican district in New York by focusing her fire on a Republican proposal to privatize Medicare, Hahn has sought to link Huey to the plan.
A controversial YouTube ad by a filmmaker unaffiliated with Huey’s campaign that targeted Hahn also has figured prominently in the race. The ad superimposes Hahn’s face on a stripper’s body and links her to gang members. Huey distanced himself from the ad, denouncing it as sexist and racist.
Organizing for America, the grassroots network from Obama’s 2008 campaign, asked supporters to make thousands of phone calls for Hahn last week. The California Republican Assembly, which bills itself as the state’s oldest and largest Republican volunteer group, has mobilized to get out the vote for Huey.
Harman, 66, had first been elected to Congress in 1992. She served three terms before unsuccessfully seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in California in 1998. She reclaimed her House seat in the in 2000 elections.