Democrats look for upset in 4th House district
November 3, 2008
NEVADA CITY, Calif. (AP) ” The Gold Rush started in California’s 4th Congressional District. Maybe it’s something about that history that has Democrats here feeling lucky about their chances of finally electing a Democrat to Congress on Tuesday.
“Even the old-timers, and there are many in this community, are having enough of a struggle that they’re looking for something new,” 24-year-resident Karen Wallack-Eisen, 51, said recently from behind the counter of the doll shop she manages in this quaint, frontier-style town.
“We struggle with” the district’s conservative bent, said Wallack-Eisen, a Democrat.
But this year, she said, “I’m just hearing a lot of really positive things.”
Like other supporters, Wallack-Eisen knows that a win by Democrat Charlie Brown over Republican Tom McClintock would amount to a major upset in this conservative, largely rural district that sprawls from the suburbs of Sacramento north to Oregon and east to Nevada. The GOP has a 15 percentage point registration advantage over Democrats.
Conventional wisdom said Brown hardly stood a chance once longtime GOP Rep. John Doolittle announced his retirement amid a lobbying scandal and Republicans nominated McClintock, a state senator from Southern California.
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Brown, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, almost beat Doolittle in 2006, but McClintock is known and respected by conservatives statewide for the unyielding anti-tax and controlled-spending stances he has taken in the Legislature and in a series of failed races for statewide office.
But Brown has run a dogged and well-financed campaign, labeling McClintock a career politician and accusing him of doing too little to support veterans.
With the economic meltdown and President Bush’s unpopularity working against Republicans nationwide, some political analysts are calling the race a tossup in its final days. Other Republicans familiar with the district believe McClintock will win handily in the end ” but not before giving his supporters a scare.
“It’s a lot tighter than we would like, and we think a lot of that is due to the enormous amounts of money from outside the district,” said Jim D’Orso, 78, while waiting for McClintock to address backers at a town hall in Roseville six days before the election. “Tom, who should be enjoying an enormous lead at this point, has a relatively narrow lead.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted the race as it has emerged as the most contested of California’s 53 House districts, which gerrymandering has rendered mostly safe for the party that holds them.
The McClintock-Brown race appears tighter than the campaign between freshman Democrat Jerry McNerney and Republican Dean Andal in the 11th Congressional District, which straddles the eastern San Francisco Bay area and western Central Valley. Early on, Republicans were gunning for McNerney, who scored a surprise upset two years ago against Republican Richard Pombo, but he is now favored to win re-election.
National Democrats have pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the 4th Congressional District race, far outpacing their Republican counterparts. As of Thursday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had spent $760,000 on behalf of Brown.
The money has gone into television ads casting McClintock as a carpetbagger who represents a Southern California district in the Legislature and doesn’t even live in the 4th District after moving his family closer to the state capital.
The ads also accuse McClintock of abusing the perks of office. McClintock’s counterattack has been to tie Brown to extreme anti-war activism and paint him as a liberal “yes man” to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, warning he would increase the size of government and raise taxes.
McClintock has run an aggressive race of his own. He has raised nearly $2.8 million and spent $2.7 million over the course of the campaign, as of the final reporting period on Oct. 15. Brown had raised more than $1.9 million and spent $1.8 million.
Yet there are signs the Democrats’ ads are having an effect. At a retirement community in Lincoln, 30 miles north of Sacramento, some senior citizens playing “pickleball” ” a cross between pingpong and tennis that’s become a fad in the retiree world ” said they knew McClintock was from Southern California and didn’t like it.
“If a guy’s going to run for a particular area, he should be from there,” said Cal Meissen, 68, a retired machine shop worker.
Some 40 miles farther north in Nevada City, home to a mix of aging hippies and libertarian-leaning independents, McClintock supporters could scarcely be found in the bead stores, bookshops and coffee houses tucked along the streets of the Victorian-style downtown.
Just outside town recently, a small group of people stood by a freeway entrance ramp waving Brown signs along with a life-sized cardboard cutout of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. Scattered drivers honked in support.
But Nevada City is among the most liberal places in the 4th Congressional District, and on the highways leading back into the more populous suburbs of Sacramento large signs proclaiming McClintock “The Real Conservative” were more visible than evidence of support for Brown.
McClintock said he is growing more confident as the campaign concludes, believing he’s gaining support with his closing messages. He cautions, for example, about the dangers of Democratic majorities in Washington.
“The American public is going to get a bellyful of it really quick,” McClintock said. “We’re going to need strong voices in the loyal opposition.”
Even critics might agree that McClintock’s played that role well during 22 years in the state Legislature, opposing not just Democrats but fellow Republicans when they haven’t held the line on spending. But Brown dismisses McClintock’s arguments about the dangers of one-party rule as just his opponent’s latest attack line.
“My story hasn’t changed. I’ve been telling the truth all along,” said Brown, whose campaign slogan is “Patriotism Before Partisanship” and who has donated 5 percent of his campaign donations to veterans’ groups. “We’ve got to start solving some problems.”
On Halloween, Brown knocked on doors in Roseville, a Sacramento suburb, where kids played and carved pumpkins outside and dogs yapped from behind the windows of comfortable homes.
The candidate encountered some supporters, including a registered Republican, Kimberly Loughran, who said she already had voted for him. He’ll need support from plenty of Republicans to pull off a victory on Election Day.
But there also were indications of the long odds Brown faces in winning among voters who haven’t sent a Democrat to Congress since their district, among the most conservative in California, was redrawn after the 1990 census.
At one home, a woman named Melinda Kern received Brown politely as her son did jumpshots at a basketball hoop on the curb and her bulldog nosed around in the yard. But after the candidate walked away, holding a handful of fliers promising integrity and values, she lingered outside her door.
“If you really want to know, I already voted for McClintock,” she said. “Charlie is more liberal than I am.”