Is there an upset in the making in the July 12 special election to replace former Congresswoman Jane Harman in California’s 36th congressional district? You might think so if you watch these ads by Democratic candidate Janice Hahn. The ads never use the words Democrat or Democratic, the announcer notes that Hahn has never held partisan office and one ad compares her Republican opponent Craig Huey with—eek!—Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich. Politico reported earlier this month that internal Democratic polling shows Hahn ahead by only about 5 points, which is to say around the margin of error.
Democrats got a psychological boost from the victory of Democrat Kathy Hochul in the New York 26th district that voted 52%-46% for John McCain in 2008, even though Hochul got less than an absolute majority. Republicans would get a psychological boost if Huey should win in the California 36th district that voted 64%-36% for Barack Obama in 2008. The 36th district is a beachfront district entirely within Los Angeles County, extending from Venice in the north to San Pedro in the south, excluding the highly affluent and Republican-leaning Palos Verdes Peninsula. It includes all of El Segundo (named after Chevron’s #2 refinery), Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach and Torrance and much of the San Pedro and Wilmington areas of the city of Los Angeles. Hahn is a well-known figure, a Los Angeles councilwoman, sister of former (2001-05) Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn and daughter of longtime (1952-92) Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn. In that capacity Kenneth Hahn represented one-fifth of Los Angeles County, including most of its black voters; he was revered in the black community. But unfortunately for Janice Hahn, most Los Angeles black voters were placed in adjacent districts, and the 36th district in 2000 was 47% white, 32% Hispanic 15% Asian and 4% black. In 1998, when Harman vacated the seat to run for governor, Hahn was the Democratic nominee and lost to Republican Steve Kuykendall 49%-47%. Harman, who typically spent more than $1 million on each of her congressional campaigns, came back and beat Kuykendall 49%-48% in 2000, and redistricting made the district more Democratic for the 2002 and subsequent elections.
The beach towns, originally settled by Midwestern retirees, were historically Republican. By the 1990s, however, the population had shifted to a younger generation, and the area, like so many other relatively high-education, high-income suburbs in major non-Southern metropolitan areas, trended heavily toward the Democrats. Hahn’s ads are clearly designed to appeal to cultural liberals and seem to totally ignore the fiscal and economic issues which are of paramount importance to most voters across the nation. A Republican victory would suggest that cultural issues are of far less importance than they were in the 1995-2005 period, when partisan preferences seemed frozen, and that affluent suburban voters are open to voting Republican on economic issues.
This was supposed to be an easy race for Democrats. Under California’s new primary rules, the top two candidates in the primary face off in the general election, and it was expected that the top two candidates in the May 17 primary would be Hahn and California Secretary of State Debra Bowen. Huey edged Bowen out for second place, but even so I thought that his chances of winning the seat were negligible. Now they seem somewhat better than that, although I think oddsmakers would still have to favor Hahn. But oddsmakers can be wrong, as the voters in the New York 26th district demonstrated.
There’s another special election looming, to replace Anthony Weiner in the New York 9th district in Queens and Brooklyn. This is a district that Obama carried by only 53%-44% and it is on the short list of districts which trended Republican between 2000 and 2008—with the others being in the Jacksonian belt running along the Appalachian chain and southwest to Texas. One factor in the 9th seems to be the Orthodox Jewish community which has become increasingly Republican. The New York Post reports that Weiner, astonishingly, has involved himself in the selection of a Democratic nominee, and that local Democrats fear Republicans could win the seat.