Thursday, June 23, 2011

In May, when Democrats pulled out a surprise victory in a special House election in New York, all the talk was about Medicare lessons for Republicans. Now on to California.

That's where another high-stakes special election will take place on July 12, to fill the seat of former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman. Lacking a sexy Mediscare plot, it isn't getting much national play. But the bottom line is that Democrats are struggling to hold on to a blue seat, offering a vivid preview of the extraordinary economic vulnerabilities the party faces going into a presidential election. There are lessons here, just as potent as those from New York.

California's 36th district is a sprawl of coastal communities near Los Angeles, heavily gerrymandered to favor Democrats, who outnumber registered Republicans 45% to 27%. Mrs. Harman routinely took more than 60% of the vote.

California recently adopted a "jungle primary" system that requires all candidates from all parties to run on the same ballot, with a runoff if no candidate receives 50% of the vote. The district is so reliably Democratic that the only question on the media's mind in the first round of May voting was which of the five Democrats (out of 16 ballot candidates) would go to a July runoff.

When the dust settled on May 17, Ms. Hahn had claimed 24% of the vote. In second place, with 22%, and claiming the runoff spot, was a GOP candidate that most of the media had never mentioned: Craig Huey. A businessman, Mr. Huey had poured personal resources into a strong mail, TV and radio strategy, and garnered the endorsements of respected California Republicans.

But what really resonated with voters was Mr. Huey's laserlike focus on the economy and jobs. As Ms. Hahn and Ms. Bowen competed on who had a more progressive environmental record, Mr. Huey banged relentlessly on California's 12% unemployment rate, job-killing regulations, and record deficits. As the two Democratic heavyweights traded barbs over who had taken more "oil money," Mr. Huey touted his plans for reviving growth.

More worrisome to Democrats ought to be the appeal of Mr. Huey's economic focus to independents, and even some Democrats. The area has its share of blue-collar workers, who have felt the brunt of the economic crisis. California Gov. Jerry Brown's proposals to significantly raise taxes—even as state Democrats refuse to accept real spending reform—have sharpened discontent. Mr. Huey has blamed economic malaise on Democratic policies and pounded his opponent for offering no solutions.

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