The conventional wisdom is that next Tuesday’s special election in the 36th Congressional District is Janice Hahn’s to lose.
And Hahn is fully capable of doing just that.
L.A. City Council member Hahn was declared the front runner from the moment she launched her campaign, within hours of former Representative Jane Harman’s retirement. Secretary of State Debra Bowen was slower off the mark, waiting a week for polling results before making her announcement. She’s been seen as the underdog ever since.
If it’s an all-Democratic runoff between Bowen and Hahn, it’s hard to say who has the advantage. Hahn has more money and more endorsements. But in the top-two system, the swing vote could become Republicans and independents in Torrance and Redondo Beach, who may lean to Bowen.
Hahn’s best hope may be that Bowen doesn’t make the runoff. That’s unlikely, but it could happen. Bowen’s natural base – the Westside progressive vote – is split between herself, anti-war activist Marcy Winograd, and (maybe) Hollywood agent Dan Adler. Hahn’s base – the Harbor-area labor vote – is united behind her.
The Marcy factor: Winograd, who twice ran against Harman’s “Bush-lite” agenda, is back for a third try. Her problem is that Hahn and Bowen agree with her on her signature issue, getting out of Afghanistan. Still, a lot of people have gotten used to voting for her. She won 41% of the Democratic primary vote just last year, so she has an impact.
At first, Winograd was leaning against running. But a clever ploy by Hahn and John Shallman, her Machiavellian consultant, drew her into the race: Hahn challenged Bowen to sign a pro-Israel pledge, which also renounced some of Winograd’s anti-Israel rhetoric. Bowen didn’t have much choice but to sign it, but doing so foreclosed the possibility that Winograd would stay out of the race and back Bowen. Hahn effectively baited Winograd into running.
If Bowen somehow misses the runoff, the pledge will be the story of the campaign.
GOP and the “Top Two” factor: On the Republican side, Craig Huey, a direct-mail entrepreneur, has put $500,000 of his own money into a Tea Party bid. Though no one had heard of him before, he may wind up the top Republican in the field. There’s also Mike Gin, the gay, pro-choice Republican mayor of Redondo Beach. He’s put in a decent showing, but he may just be building up name recognition to run for county supervisor.
It’s hard to see how any Republican gets into the runoff. Democrats have a 45-27 registration advantage, and the Republican vote is split among six candidates. But that’s why they have horseraces.
That said, Hahn is all but guaranteed a spot in the runoff, and will likely finish first on Tuesday. Bowen has to work for it a little, but will probably finish second.
Janice vs Debra: Hahn would have several advantages in the July 12 runoff, including the support of the L.A. County Federation of Labor. The Fed’s get-out-the-vote effort is formidable in off-year and low-turnout races.
But she’s got some weaknesses, too.
She lost a campaign for the same seat in 1998, lost the primary last year for lieutenant governor. She’s termed out in two years and has been searching for the next job, and hasn’t been picky about what it is. Before the Congressional seat opened up, she was mulling a run for city controller. Voters may catch a whiff of opportunism.
The Hahn name still carries some clout in L.A., but it’s diminishing. And most of this district isn’t in L.A. It’s in Torrance and the beach cities, where voters tend to be wary of L.A. politicians.
Bowen’s base is more affluent, pro-environment, and pro-trial lawyer. She’s from Marina del Rey, and she figures to do well in the coastal areas. She tends to be cautious and reserved to the point of unapproachability.
Hahn is a better retail politician, but Bowen is a much better wonk.
Bowen is being outspent. An independent expenditure committee that represents malpractice insurance carriers has put in $100,000 to defeat her.
In a traditional Democratic primary, she would probably lose the nomination. But in the top-two primary, she gets a second chance.
Westside vs. the Harbor: With Winograd out of the picture, Bowen would be able to consolidate her support on the Westside and in the more affluent beach cities. Hahn will have the Harbor. The battleground will be in between, in conservative Torrance and Redondo Beach.
Hahn has more local endorsements, but Bowen probably has more appeal for independent voters. She had a reputation as an “independent Democrat” when she represented the South Bay in the Legislature in the 90’s. She’s also more focused on good-government issues, which may have some crossover appeal. Hahn will be closely identified with labor and Los Angeles – two strikes among conservative suburbanites.
Hahn will probably be hoping that Republicans and independents don’t show up at the polls, and they may not. But if they do, they could end up swinging it to Bowen.
There’s still a lot of campaigning left to do. It’s been relatively tame up to this point, but it should get a bit nastier in the runoff.
Gene Maddaus, who covers politics for the LA Weekly, has led the pack from the beginning coverage of the race to replace former Rep. Jane Harman. His previous analysis for Calbuzz is here.