Tom Watson may be tough competition for Lois Capps

WASHINGTON — In a typical year, Tom Watson says, it would be a suicide mission to run against Democratic Rep. Lois Capps, who won her last election with 68 percent of the vote.

“This year is not a normal year,” said Watson, a Republican who’s trying to unseat Capps as the congressional representative for the 23rd District — which hugs the coast from the Monterey County line south to Ventura County and includes San Luis Obispo.

Watson, 50, of the Santa Barbara beach town of Summerland, is predicting a huge Republican wave that could result in as many as 100 new GOP House members, including him.

And he predicts he will pick up plenty of votes from disgruntled Democrats who want things to change in Congress.

“Just because you’re a registered Democrat doesn’t mean that you’re crazy,” he said. “And what has been going on in Washington is crazy.”

This year’s election offers voters a distinct choice between the candidates, who had their first debate Saturday: While Watson has the endorsement of the anti-establishment tea party movement, Capps is among the most liberal House members, receiving a perfect score of 100 for the past two years from Americans for Democratic Action.

Capps, a 72-year-old former school nurse from Santa Barbara, has held the seat since 1998, when she replaced her husband, the late Democrat Rep. Walter Capps.

Calling it “a tight situation” this year, she’s expecting Democrats to lose seats but retain their majority Nov. 2.

“I know there is a mood in the air this year,” she said. “The tea party reflects it. My opponent reflects it. We’re in a recessing economy, and people are angry, and the anger comes from fear and confusion. But I don’t see a lot of Republicans out there registering voters. I don’t see a lot of Republicans out getting out the vote. Our ground game has always been turnout.”

Capps said she’s “working as hard as I’ve always worked” to get re-elected. She was part of a team that helped more than 7,000 students register to vote at UC Santa Barbara.

“That’s a pretty decent job,” she said.

In Washington and California, political handicappers say Capps should win easily.

“She’s got a real challenger for really the first time since she initially got in the House, but I think it’s a pretty safe race,” said Eric Smith, professor of political science at UCSB.

He said Capps is well liked in the district and benefits from her low-key style and the fact that she is not associated with controversial issues.

“She doesn’t come back and give fiery speeches,” he said. “She doesn’t call up the newspaper and tell reporters how she’s going to change the world.”

Capps has developed a reputation on Capitol Hill as a party loyalist who focuses most on issues involving health care, energy and the environment.

She has been a strong proponent of abortion rights and a fierce opponent of any plans to open the California coast to more oil drilling.

She said she wants to serve an eighth term because “there’s certainly a lot of unfinished business.”

Among other things, she said, Congress needs to extend tax cuts for the middle class and pass a comprehensive immigration bill that would strengthen border security while providing a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

She said she also wants to work on new green energy policies, adding: “Fossil fuel is old hat.”

Watson, a retired naval officer who owns a technology company, said Congress first needs to rein in spending.

“The spending is completely and totally out of control,” he said. “We cannot continue to spend money that we don’t have like this. You can’t tax and spend and borrow your way to prosperity like we’re trying to do right now.”

Watson said he wants to make it easier for small business owners to borrow money.

He said policies passed by Congress inhibit job creation and that many employers don’t want to hire now due to economic uncertainties.

He accused Capps of voting for policies that “are destructive to this country,” including the health care law that passed in March.

“I don’t think she’s been a good representative,” he said. “She works more for her party leadership than she does for the people of the 23rd District. She voted pretty much —100 percent of the time — with (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi.”

Watson said insurance premiums for his company shot up 30 percent this year, which he attributed to the new law.

He said the law should be repealed, adding that members of Congress opposed “the expressed will of the American people” when they approved the health-care legislation.

“It was crystal clear for months and months and months that the American people wanted absolutely nothing to do with this bill,” Watson said.

Capps cited the health-care law and passage of a stimulus package that attempted to revive the economy as Congress’ biggest accomplishments in the current session. She said it would be a mistake to scrap the new health care law.

“You’re talking to a nurse,” she said. “I’ve been working in our community for years. I came to Congress knowing our health care system was broken. And I can’t imagine repealing it. Going back to what?”

Rob Hotakainen covers Central Coast issues for The Tribune from the McClatchy Washington Bureau.