Vicious Vanquishing Of Gooch Threatens To Turn Chabot’s Victory Into A Pyrrhic One

(June 11) While he was able to bask for more than a week in the intoxicating afterglow of his strong showing in this year’s primary election for the 31st Congressional District which put him more than nine percentage points above and 4,800 votes beyond his closest rival, Republican Paul Chabot is now confronted by the sober realization that both his strategy and tactics in obtaining the nomination to run as one of the two finalists in the November race may have made his June victory a pyrrhic one.
Against odds and contrary to the demographic numbers, California’s 31st Congressional District is currently represented by a Republican, Congressman Gary Miller. But the Republican grasp on the district is a tenuous one.
Of the district’s registered voters, 124,412 or 40.4 percent, are affiliated with the Democratic Party.  Registered Republicans in the district number 104,154, or 33.8 percent. There are a smattering of Green Party and American Independent voters in the district, along with 64,571, or 21 percent who have declined to state a party affiliation.
In 2012, after an absence of many years, California reinstituted open primaries, in which voters of all parties are free to vote beyond the confines of those parties, for any candidate who qualifies for the ballot. The two top vote getters, regardless of party are thus allowed to proceed to the general election in November.
With the nearly seven percent registration advantage they held over the Republicans in the 31st Congressional District, Democrats had good reason to consider the 31st to be a reliable Democratic stronghold.
But events transpired to undo them.
Four Democrats – Pete Aguilar, Justin Kim, Rita Ramirez-Dean, and Renea Wickman – sought election in the 31st in 2012. Miller, who had been a member of Congress since 1999 and represented the solidly Republican 42nd District in southwestern San Bernardino County, northeastern Orange County and southwestern Los Angeles County, had seen his district reapportioned out from under him. Instead of vying against fellow Republican Ed Royce in a newly drawn Congressional District in Orange County, Miller opted to run in the 31st, believing his superior fundraising capability as incumbent might allow him to offset the registration advantage that fell to the Democrats. As it turned out, another Republican, Bob Dutton, who was in his last year as a member of the California State Senate at that time before being termed out of office, also ran for the 31st Congressional District seat.
Despite the nearly 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.
Earlier this year, the specter of déjà vu seemed to have descended on the 31st District. In February, Miller announced he would not seek reelection. By that point, Aguilar, the top Democratic vote-getter two years ago, attorney and Democratic Party activist Eloise Gomez-Reyes from Colton, former Democratic congressman Joe Baca from Rialto and San Bernardino City Unified School District Trustee Danny Tillman, a Democrat, all qualified their candidacies in the race.
Miller’s announcement brought two Republican hopefuls into the race, Lesli Gooch, a member of Miller’s congressional staff, and Chabot, a self-styled anti-drug crusader who in 2010 had made a name for himself when he made a strong showing against the eventual victor in the race for  40th  District state assemblyman, fellow Republican Mike Morrell.
For a time, it appeared that the Party of Lincoln might be able to recreate the outcome of 2012 in the 31st District, with each of the two Republicans managing to share enough of the Republican vote in the primary to outpoll all four of the Democrats dividing the Democratic vote. That scenario was attenuated somewhat when Ryan Downing, a Republican from Whittier, jumped into the race. Downing was able to run for the post because members of Congress need not live in the district they represent but must merely reside in the state in which their district is located. While Downing’s presence in the fray certainly complicated matters for Chabot and Gooch, his was a marginal candidacy at best, as he had virtually no name recognition, no monetary backing to speak of, and woefully little in terms of electioneering sophistication.
Early on, Democrats  at the national level and some at the state and local level threw their support behind Aguilar.  Democratic strategists, 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 hatched a game plan 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.
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.” By this spring, Aguilar had over $1 million in his political war chest.
Despite all that, Baca, Gomez-Reyes and Tillman somehow failed to get the message and each of them campaigned as if they believed they not only merited being sent to Washington, D.C., but had a realistic shot at getting there. Myopically, the two best funded Democratic candidates – Aguilar and Gomez Reyes – after utilizing a modicum of their available resources to promote themselves, spared little expense in attacking each other as well as Baca. With only one exception, a hit piece put out by Gomez Reyes that zeroed in on Baca, Aguilar, Gooch and Chabot by labeling them as “lobbyists,” Aguilar and Gomez concentrated on trashing one another, and Baca, ignoring the woefully underfunded Tillman and Downing, and carrying on as if neither Gooch nor Chabot were in the race.
This provided Chabot and Gooch with a golden political opportunity, one by which they could soldier on as earnest and dignified candidates who remained well above the fray, allowing the residual benefits of the vitriol among the others to redound to their benefit. Curiously, however, a mudfest broke out between Chabot and Gooch.
Chabot’s initial electioneering involved touting various endorsements he was receiving from local officials and political figures. On March 19, however, the Chabot campaign actuated the first negative informational blitz relating to either of the Republican candidates in the form of an email from John S. Thomas, Chabot’s chief strategist, and Ryan Hall, Chabot’s communications director, assailing Gooch as a “lobbyist and DC insider.” Gooch, Thomas and Hall insisted, “Lies to voters about [her] business experience. If Gooch is willing to lie to voters about this, what else is she hiding?” The email then quoted Chabot as saying, “My opponent, Lesli Gooch, has exaggerated her business experience. By her own admission, via her LinkedIn profile, she has done nothing except work for elected officials and then was paid to lobby them for their vote and now she’s trying to perpetuate the cycle by running for office.”
When the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee followed the lead of Miller and endorsed Gooch, Chabot and his election crew went ballistic.  Chabot charged that the county’s Republican Central Committee and its most influential members were “corrupt.”
On March 28, Hall sent out an email to high propensity Republican voters stating that “In a shocking revelation, news broke yesterday that Congressional candidate Leslie Gooch, running in the 31st district, was a long-time lobbyist for infamous indicted developer Jeffrey Burum.”
The reference was to an ongoing criminal case that had been filed against Burum relating to his activity prior to the 2006 settlement of a civil suit brought by his company against the county of San Bernardino over flood control issues at one of his company’s development projects in which the county paid out $102 million. Burum has maintained his innocence and the case has yet to go to trial.
Thomas was quoted as saying, “Voters should be appalled and disappointed to discover that Leslie Gooch has not only been dishonest about hiding her past as a lobbyist, but she has represented indicted individuals in our region’s biggest political corruption scandal. We don’t need someone who will sell access to the highest bidder.”
Hall then reiterated Chabot’s call for Gooch to “withdraw from [the] race.”
In mid-April a spate of emails attacking Gooch went out, this time originating from sources ostensibly unconnected to the Chabot campaign.  Subsequent events, however, suggested they were connected to the Chabot elective effort.
On April 15, an email from Steve Gutierrez of the San Bernardino Citizens for Public Integrity dwelled upon Gooch having resided in Alexandria, Virginia while working as a congressional staffer. An attachment to one of those emails was a letter Gooch had written to local Virginia officials regarding a land use issue there in which she advocated against approval of a proposal to allow an ethanol transloading facility. The clear implication of the email was that Gooch, who had grown up in the Inland Empire and had attended UC Riverside, had abandoned the local area for bigger and better things in and around the nation’s capitol
On April 16, an email from Sabrina Wooten-Smith informed recipients that “Lesli Gooch, a volunteer community representative in Alexandria, Virginia running for Congress in California, has quickly racked up $113,000 in campaign debt, according to a Wall Street Journal article printed today.”
On April 25, an email from Trevor Bird of the organization CA 31 Clean Slate stated “Lesli Gooch is a phony weasel,”  charging she had not made her position on several issues such as abortion, Afghanistan, marriage, gun rights, minimum wage, security, or government spending  clear.
Like the Gutierrez and Wooten-Smith emails, the provenance of the email was not clear. Verbiage in the attack piece indicated that CA 31 Clean Slate supported Tillman, suggesting but not stating the email was emanating from the Tillman camp.
The Gooch campaign’s initial responses to Chabot’s attacks were relatively mild and low key, with Gooch campaign spokesman Jeff Corless saying merely that Chabot had become “unhinged” over the central committee endorsement going to Gooch.
In May, however, the Gooch campaign sent out a mailer to high propensity Republican voters in which Chabot was lambasted as a “failed lobbyist” who was “a political bureaucrat for Bill Clinton.” The mailer went on to accuse Chabot of misrepresentations and misuse of governmental grant money utilized by his non-profit foundation “Partnership For A Drug Free California.”
“Paul Chabot pocketed nearly $1million of taxpayer money funneled through non-profits on failed government programs and government salaries. We can’t afford Paul Chabot’s costly decisions,” the mailer stated, further tagging Chabot with “A history of reckless decisions costing taxpayers millions.”
This prompted a response from the Chabot campaign in which an email went out from Ryan on May 28 stating “Gooch violates campaign disclosure laws with last minute smear mailer.”
In the June 3 election, of the 51,972 votes cast in the 31st Congressional District, 13,868 or 26.68 percent went to Chabot. Gooch came tantalizingly close to second place, with 8,842 votes or 17.01 percent, but was edged out by Aguilar, who polled 9,023 or 17.36 percent.
Typically, after hard fought primary elections, Democrats and Republicans alike close party ranks and support the primary victor against the rival party’s candidate. Moreover, the Democratic and Republican national parties normally offer monetary and other resource support to their respective party’s standard bearer in the November contests. Chabot and his team, who continue to celebrate his first place finish in the primary as an absolute indicator of his front running status in the November contest, represent that they fully anticipate being the recipients of GOP support and bonhomie in the present circumstance.
Given both the circumstances of the primary race and the Chabot team’s willful attacks upon his fellow Republican in a race which necessitated partisan cooperation rather than intraparty acrimony, the Republican support that Chabot will absolutely need to defeat the well-funded  Democrat Aguilar in a district that leans Democrat in party registration by 6.6 percent is not guaranteed and, in fact, probably unlikely given that there are races elsewhere in which the GOP has better prospects of victory.
This week, the Chabot camp was carrying on as if the just concluded battle royal with Gooch was nothing more than a minor squabble between brother and sister. The campaign team maintained its ebullience over its 9.32 percentage point margin over Aguilar and was unapologetic about having curtailed the possibility of a Republican vs. Republican runoff in November in which the GOP would have been guaranteed to hang on to the seat.
“We ran a clean campaign,” Hall told the Sentinel. “We handily won. We’re moving forward. We are going to use the same message of public safety and job creation in the general campaign. We’re not worried about who gets second place, Aguilar or Gooch. Our message definitely resonated with the voters. We think that message will continue to resonate not just with Republicans but Democrats and independents. We won by ten percent. That is a big number. We know we won’t get most of the Democrats in November, but we will get some and we will do well with the independents.
Paul is not an establishment candidate. People don’t want a candidate that is in with the establishment. People wanted Paul Chabot. The voters overwhelmingly supported him in this election. Paul’s numbers far exceed the other candidates from both parties. Everyone had the same amount of time. Lesli had more money to spend and we still have these results. People want someone who represents the community. He is a Navy combat veteran and a sheriff’s officer who is helping kids get off drugs. He is going to high schools and giving presentations. His whole life has been focused.”
Hall downplayed any lingering animosity over the tenor of the campaign and Chabot’s torpedoing of another Republican.
“I think that when everything shakes out, we’re hoping Lesli will endorse Paul when it comes to that point. I don’t think there was any animosity. That is what politics is about. The minority whip supported Paul a few days ago. The tide is turning in that direction. We hope for more endorsements. We are going to continue to stick to our message. Paul is a strong candidate with a strong message. Lesli Gooch attacked Paul. We are not going to sit idly by but try to set the record straight.”
With regard to calling Gooch a lobbyist who had advocated on behalf of someone who had been indicted, Hall said the Chabot campaign was merely pointing out what Gooch did for a living.
“Arguing about her being a businesswoman and lobbyist wasn’t negative or positive. Being a lobbyist was what she had done in the past. That’s not a bad thing. Paul is proud of the work he does,” Hall said. “She should be proud of the work she did. That is all we were saying.”
As for the slew of mailers attacking Gooch that went out in April from nebulous sources, Hall attributed them to Tillman.
“Those were from Dan Tillman’s supporters,” he said.
The Sentinel contacted Tillman to confirm that assertion.
“I didn’t do anything negative during the campaign at all,” Tillman said. “The whole thing was focused on telling people about myself and that was it.”
Hall sought to extend an olive branch to Gooch.
“We’re over this first part and we would like everyone to get behind Paul. Paul is a gracious man and would be honored to have those who ran against him endorse him. He would do the same for her [Gooch] if the situation were reversed. If the people spoke and wanted Lesli to represent them, Paul would endorse her.”
Hall dismissed the suggestion that the Democratic registration advantage in the district and Aguilar’s larger campaign war chest would be major factors in the November election and said neither he nor Chabot nor the strategist Thomas believed heavy Republican Party support was needed to overcome those Democratic advantages.
“The public is weary of all the political infighting and so is Paul,” Hall said. “He is someone who is not part of that system. Gooch and Aguilar are establishment candidates. Paul is not an establishment candidate. He was ten percent ahead of both of them. The public is weary of establishment candidates. They are not happy with the status quo. The other candidates are part of that status quo. The voters wanted someone more like Paul, who is working in a different sense and not in a way the establishment wanted him to.  Paul has conservative values. He is going after the support of people who matter, like local politicians. Pete Aguilar has support in Redlands and from the national Democratic Party. Paul wasn’t getting fundraising dollars coming from other groups. Our support was from regular people. Lesli outspent us eleven to one. We were outspent and still did what everyone said he could not do. He wasn’t just sending out mailers and flyers and hit pieces. I am not saying this is not an uphill fight to win but we expect to be on top. No one expected us to be on top in the primary and we showed everyone. We did it handily. We will do the same in November.”

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