Dan Walters: Lois Capps struggles to survive in tight California congressional race

dwalters@sacbee.comSeptember 18, 2012 

Lois Capps was a big beneficiary of a bipartisan gerrymander of legislative and congressional districts after the 2000 census.

Capps had been elected to Congress in a 1998 special election after her husband, Walter, died just nine months into his first congressional term. And although she won re-election later that year and in 2000, Democratic leaders were worried about the effects of redistricting.

The district they drew for Capps in 2001 became an oft-cited example of how districts were tailored to guarantee election outcomes, effectively making voters irrelevant. It was long and very skinny, only a few miles wide at some points, encompassing liberal coastal voters in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, and excluding conservative inland communities.

With Democrats holding a 2-1 voter registration margin, Capps easily won five more terms, but redistricting after the 2010 census made a big difference.

The new 24th Congressional District, drawn by an independent commission, still involves those three counties, but is much more compact and includes inland communities.

Democrats now outnumber Republicans by just three percentage points. Capps won just 46.4 percent of the June primary vote, while two Republicans, former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado and Chris Mitchum, together garnered 51.2 percent. That signaled that the district would be a battleground in the partisan war over control of Congress.

Maldonado won the GOP nomination. Now both parties are pouring heavy funds into his duel with Capps, a financial deluge driven by its competitiveness and the fact that the region is served by local television stations, making it one of the very few congressional races in which TV advertising is cost-effective.

Central Coast voters are being treated – or subjected – to nonstop barrages of TV spots. They feature not only the standard conflicts over Medicare and other national issues but a unique conflict over taxes – not tax policy, but rather the tax problems of both candidates.

While the Capps campaign hammers Maldonado over his family farm's multi-million-dollar fights with the Internal Revenue Service, Maldonado's camp hits her over failing to report income from renting a room to one of her staffers.

Maldonado's chances of going to Congress are somewhat damaged by his alienation from conservative, anti-tax groups because as a state senator he voted for then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's tax increase in 2009. But he benefits from being a Latino in a district with a particularly heavy Latino population.

Democratic hopes of making big congressional gains in California have faded. Nevertheless, a Capps defeat would be embarrassing for the party in a year when Barack Obama is expected to win California in a landslide.

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