Sense Of Déjà Vu Haunts Dems In 31st District

(March 17) The chain of events that prevented Democrats from claiming what appears to be their rightful heirship in the 31st Congressional District in 2012 are replaying themselves once more in 2014. The internecine battle for primacy between four Democratic contenders in the district, which stretches from Rancho Cucamonga through a large portion of Fontana, Rialto, Colton, and San Bernardino to Redlands, could once again result in the GOP copping the Congressional seat now held by Republican Gary Miller.
Miller’s 2012 victory in the 31st Congressional District, which had been redrawn after the 2010 Census, was an extraordinary occurrence.
With the Republicans holding a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives and California being an overwhelming Democratic state, the Democrats have a real incentive to paint the 31st Congressional District blue, especially given the registration advantage they have over the Party of Lincoln within it.  Of the district’s registered voters, 127,690 or 41 percent, are affiliated with the Democratic Party.  Registered Republicans in the district number 104,938, or 33.7 percent.
Nevertheless, the Democrats foundered there in 2012, having been undercut by a lack of party cohesion and the advent of open primaries that year.
Four Democrats – Pete Aguilar, Justin Kim, Rita Ramirez-Dean, and Renea Wickman – sought election in the 31st in 2012, as did Miller and another Republican, Bob Dutton. Despite the seven percent Democratic voter registration advantage in the 31st, simple mathematics hurt the Democrats as their vote was divided four ways, while the Republican vote was split two ways. Dutton and Miller proved to be the two top vote-getters and under California’s open primary arrangement, the Democrats who ran third, fourth, fifth and sixth in the June race were shut out and the November general election came down to a race between Republicans Miller and Dutton. Miller prevailed in that race.
Now, two years later, déjà vu has descended on the 31st District. Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar, the top Democratic vote-getter two years ago, attorney and Democratic Party activist Eloise Gomez-Reyes from Colton, former congressman Joe Baca from Rialto and San Bernardino City Unified School District Trustee Danny Tillman have all qualified their candidacies in the race.
In February, Miller announced he would not seek reelection. That brought two Republican hopefuls into the race, Lesli Gooch, a member of Miller’s congressional staff, and Paul Chabot, a self-styled anti-drug crusader who in 2010 ran for the State Assembly but lost to fellow Republican Mike Morrell.
In 2012, 62,667 total votes were cast in the June Primary in the 31st District. Miller claimed 16,708 of those, or 26.66 percent. Dutton snagged 15,557, or 24.82 percent, which edged out Aguilar, who claimed 14,181 votes or 22.63 percent. Justin Kim came in fourth with 8,487 votes or 13.54 percent. Renea Wickman, the third most popular Democrat in the race, placed fifth overall, with  8,487 votes or 13.54 percent.  Rita Ramirez-Dean came in last, but siphoned off  3,546 votes or 5.66 percent.
Thus, 32,265 of the district’s voters, or 51.48 percent, voted for Republicans, and 48. 52 percent voted for Democrats in the primary.
Under normal circumstances, Republicans exhibit greater voter turn-out at the polls than do Democrats. Moreover, this disparity is even more pronounced in primary elections than in general elections. In November 2012, voter turn-out in the 31st Congressional District at the general election was well more than double what it was in the primary, with 161,219 casting votes. And in the voting for president, the district’s voters supported Democrat  Barack Obama with 57.2 percent of the vote to Republican Mitt Romney with 40.6 percent, which probably reflects what the outcome would have been had a Democrat opposed a Republican in the congressional seat voting.
It is possible that Gooch, who has picked up Miller’s endorsement and who has begun to tap into the funding stream Miller used including the National Realtors Association’s political action committee, and Chabot, with his name recognition among a faction of local Republicans, could cut the Democrats off at the pass again in June. In fact, many political observers consider such an outcome likely.
Meanwhile, an earlier effort by the Democratic establishment to break the GOP’s unlikely hold on the 31st District has sputtered.
Even before Miller outpolled Dutton in November 2012, Democratic strategists were conferring about what steps could be taken to ensure that Democratic disarray in 2014 did not perpetuate Miller’s incumbency beyond the current Congress. In short order, a game plan was hatched by which Aguilar was chosen as the logical party standard bearer. By promoting Aguilar early, engaging in brisk fundraising on his behalf and warding off any other Democrats so a concentrated party electoral effort to advance Aguilar could be mounted, high-ranking Democratic  Party officials believed Aguilar could beat Miller in a toe-to-toe slugfest in November.
Relatively early on, well-connected Democratic-functionaries acted to boost Aguilar.  In May 2013, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee selected Aguilar as one of five candidates nationwide to be included in its Jumpstart Program, which is intended to assist early-emerging Democrats seeking to unseat incumbent Republicans deemed to be vulnerable.
Party leaders convinced California’s two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, to endorse Aguilar. Party donors, inside and outside California, were encouraged to provide him with campaign cash, and money started pouring into Aguilar’s political war chest. More attention was drawn to him, ensuring even more contributions, when the Washington-based news organization, Politico, in July named Aguilar one of “50 Politicos to watch in 2013.”
Despite all that, Baca, Gomez-Reyes and Tillman somehow failed to get the message.
Baca,  who had been a member of Congress for more than 13 years when he was ignominiously chased from office by another Democrat in the 2012 election, is less than accommodating at this point of his party’s alliances and priorities. His political demise in 2012 came about as a consequence of his own decision on where he would run, a visceral side-effect of open primaries and his Democratic rival’s readiness to enter into an opportunistic political arrangement with a well-heeled, out-of-state Republican.
Beginning in 1999 when he won a special election to succeed long-time Democratic Congressman George Brown after Brown died in office, Baca represented California in Washington D.C.’s lower house, serving the heavily Democratic-leaning  42nd and 43rd Congressional districts with solid Democratic support. In 2012, he found himself most logically ushered into the newly drawn 31st Congressional District as a result of the reapportionment following the 2010 Census.  Simultaneously, Congressman Gary Miller, whose 42nd district in northeast Orange, southeast Los Angeles and southwest San Bernardino counties had likewise been reapportioned out from underneath him, opted out of running against fellow Republican Ed Royce in the newly-draw 39th District. Instead Miller declared his intention of wrestling Baca for the voters’ nod in the newly drawn 31st District.
Though the 31st was a Democratic-leaning district, Baca, perhaps fearing Miller’s prodigious fundraising ability, decided to run in the neighboring 35th Congressional District, which was even more heavily laden with Democrat voters than the 31st.
Incumbent Members of Congress do not need to live within the geographical boundaries of the district they represent, and merely need to live within the state where the district in which they hold office is located.
Baca appeared to be a shoo-in in the 35th, where no Republican candidate bothered to run. He cruised to a relatively convincing victory in the June 2012 primary, capturing 12,619 votes or 47.17 percent to 9,078 or 33.93 percent that went to then-state senator Gloria Negrete-McCleod, another Democrat, and  5,058 votes or 18.9 percent, that went to Anthony Vieyra, a Green Party Candidate.
The switch to an open primary system  ended sequestered party ballots and effectively brought to a close the tradition of guaranteeing that a Democrat would face a Republican in the November general election. Instead, the open primary led to setting up a November race between the two highest vote-getters in June, regardless of party affiliation. Thus, a confident Baca in November 2012 squared off against Negrete-McLeod. On the strength of his primary showing, his incumbency, his perceived fundraising advantage, his superior name recognition, and his unwillingness to engage in a bare-knuckle political slugfest against a woman who was like him Democrat and Hispanic, Baca waged little more than a minimalist campaign, fully anticipating he would easily pick up at least three percent of the voting trend that had gone to Vieyra in the primary campaign to put him over the top.
In the final weeks before the general election on November 6, however, Negrete-McLeod’s campaign was infused with $3.8 million in donations from a political action committee controlled by Republican New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which paid for a $2.3 million television advertising blitz during the last week of the campaign. Caught flatfooted and unable to respond in kind to both a bevy of negative hit pieces that attacked him on his record and upbeat mailers that lionized Negrete-McLeod for her service in the California legislature, Baca saw the election slip away, with Negrete-McLeod capturing 61,065 votes or 54.35 percent to his 51,281 votes or 45.65 percent.
Baca is now gunning to make a political comeback and he is not inclined to heed the pleas of Democratic Party officials who stood idly by a year-and-a-half ago while his Democratic rival utilized boatloads of Republican money to clobber him.  He is seeking to utilize the name recognition he has cultivated from two decades as a legislator in Washington, D.C. and Sacramento, his indirect and residual political clout, together with an insider’s knowledge of issues and alliances, and sheer force of will to regain a berth in the House of Representatives. He is looking to tap into big money backing from national and even international players, such as ConocoPhillips and TransCanada, whose Keystone XL Pipeline intended to transport oil sands bitumen from Canada and  Bakken synthetic crude oil and light crude oil produced in Montana and North Dakota  to refineries on the Gulf Coast Baca has supported even as environmentalists have opposed that project.
Nor did Democratic honchos make any headway in convincing Gomez Reyes or Tillman to clear out of Aguilar’s way.  Indeed, Gomez-Reyes in particular, has demonstrated the seriousness of her campaign.
According to campaign finance reporting documents filed with the Federal Election Commission,   she has raised $315,520.94. Moreover, she has been gaining momentum and advancing in the early polling that has been conducted, making inroads against both Aguilar and Baca as she has earnestly propounded her message and pursued her maiden campaign after years of building goodwill among Democrats throughout Southern California as a party activist and campaign worker for others.
The money Aguilar, Baca and Gomez-Reyes appear poised to throw into the advertising onslaught in advance of the June primary will very likely ensure that the vote between them will be relatively evenly distributed, with Tillman claiming an inevitable three-to-eight percent of the Democratic vote as well.
Another factor that has increased the likelihood of a similar replay of the 2012 31st District outcome, with the advantage accruing to Gooch and Chabot, is that a third potential Republican candidate, San Bernardino City Councilman John Valdivia, who took out nomination papers, at the last minute decided against running.  Valdivia’s presence on the ballot would have likely divided the Republican vote significantly. His decision elevates the political prospects of Gooch and Chabot considerably.

Leave a Reply