Did Republicans make a surprisingly good showing in the special election primary to fill the 36th congressional district seat vacated by Democrat Jane Harman? You might think so to judge from the Hotline, which notes accurately that Republican self-funder Craig Huey finished second, with 21.9% of the votes, to Democrat Janice Hahn, Los Angeles Councilwoman, who finished first with 24.7%. Huey finished just ahead of Democrat Debra Bowen, California Secretary of State who got 21.5% of the vote. Under California law, the top two finishers now face off in a runoff election. Huey’s apparent second-place finish means Republicans have a chance to capture what has been a Democratic seat since 2000.
But there are a couple of caveats. There are still 9,811 absentee votes to be counted, and California takes a long time to count them. Currently Huey leads Bowen by 206 votes. That’s a lead that could easily be overtaken, in which case the runoff is Democrat versus, with Democrats guaranteed to hold the seat.
The second thing to be said is that the returns show that the six Republican candidates won a total of 41% of the vote while the five Democrats won 57% of the vote. This ratio is almost identical to that in the June 2010 primary, when Democrats won 56% of the total vote and Republicans 41%. Both parties had contests in that primary; Harman was challenged by left-winger Marcy Winograd and beat her by a 59%-41% margin among Democrats—not an overwhelming victory for an incumbent. (To use the metrics we’ve used for the special primary, Harman got 33.2% of the total vote and Winograd got 23.0%, considerably more than the 9.5% she got Tuesday.) But you get a different picture if you go back to the June 2008 primary, in which there was no contest for either major party’s nomination. Then the Democrat got 61% of the total votes and the Republican 39%.
What all this suggests is that the balance between the parties in this upscale beachfront district, which stretches from Santa Monica to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, is basically the same as it was in June 2010 and more favorable to Republicans than it was in June 2008. And we should remember that this has not always been a hugely Democratic district; its predecessor district was won by Republican Steve Kuykendall in 1998 when Harman left the House to run for governor. It has become more Democratic since then, as Republicans’ conservative stands on cultural issues repelled the freethinking folks of the South Bay, with John Kerry carrying the district 59%-40% in 2004 and Barack Obama carrying it 64%-34% in 2008.
The primary returns suggest that it’s not as heavily Democratic today as it was in 2008, but still Democratic. Republican Craig Huey’s $300,000 in radio and TV ads may have enabled him to make the runoff—hold the champagne until all the absentees are counted—but he doesn’t look like a favorite for the runoff election. But if he does win, it will or at least should be big news.