U.S. Rep. Lois Capps is seeking her ninth full term in the U.S. House of Representatives, but judging from results of the June primary she will have to woo Democrats — and possibly some Republicans — back to the polls to vote for her on Nov. 4.
Republican Chris Mitchum, 70, of Santa Barbara is challenging Capps for the 24th Congressional District seat. The district includes San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and parts of northern Ventura counties.
In the June 3 primary, Capps, 76, faced an unprecedented eight challengers — five Republicans, two Democrats and an independent — in a district where Democrats only narrowly outnumber Republicans since boundaries were redrawn in 2010.
Mitchum, an actor and former vice president of the Screen Actors Guild, beat out his fellow Republicans with 15.8 percent of the vote. Capps trumped all candidates with 43.7 percent.
But Republicans made a healthier showing at the primary: Republican candidates garnered more than 50 percent of the total vote, while all Democratic candidates received less than 49 percent.
“To me, the hallmark of my campaign has always been grassroots, on the ground, going door-to-door,” Capps said. “And we need to keep reminding people that there is a very important election this year even though there’s not a lot on the ballot that grabs headlines.”
To do that, Capps needs to get her message out — and she’s got the money to do that.
According to her latest quarterly Federal Election Commission financial disclosure statement, between Jan. 1, 2013 and June 30, 2014, Capps raised more than $1.6 million in contributions, spent more than $900,000 and currently has more than $1 million cash on hand.
Mitchum raised more than $165,000 — including $112,000 in loans — and spent nearly $157,000 in the same period. He now has less than $11,000 on hand.
Mitchum, son of the late actor Robert Mitchum, entered politics as the Republican nominee in the 1998 general election for the 35th district of the state Assembly — which then included portions of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. He lost the race to now-Democratic State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, 53 to 44 percent.
Running against the incumbent Capps in the 2012 primary, he ultimately lost the Republican nomination to former Lt. Governor Abel Maldonado 29 to 21 percent.
Though he has less of a presence in San Luis Obispo County and doesn’t spend much time in the county campaigning, he has gained a following among Santa Barbara conservatives.
Mitchum said he credits his primary win to being the "most conservative" of candidates, though he takes issue with the term “Tea Party Republican,” instead defining himself as a “Constitutional Republican.”
"Free market, lower taxes and abiding by the Constitution — the basic values that built this country,” Mitchum said. “When you look at the fact that John F. Kennedy would be a good Republican candidate today, then I think we've slid to the left.”
Capps has been in office since being elected to complete her late husband's term after Walter Capps died suddenly of a heart attack in 1997. Since then, Capps has used her background as a nurse to champion healthcare reform, environmental initiatives and social welfare programs.
In the 113th Congress, Capps co-authored three successful bills—the Farm Bill, the National Pediatric Research Network Act and the HOPE Act — in a Congress that only passed 63 bills.
"In this, the most partisan Congress ever, I'd say that's quite an accomplishment," Capps said.
Ideologically, Capps and Mitchum could not be farther apart.
On the economy, Mitchum says that reducing taxes on small businesses and opening up the region to domestic oil production would not only promote energy independence, but also spur job growth, reduce costs to businesses and consumers and even protect the coastline from offshore oil spills, he said.
“When California is using two million barrels of oil a day and it’s coming in from across the ocean, it just makes ecological sense that we should be producing our own,” Mitchum said.
Capps strongly opposes any expansion of current on- and offshore oil exploration.
On healthcare, Capps has been a strong proponent of the Affordable Care Act, which she says has helped more than 50,000 previously uninsured Central Coast residents obtain health insurance regardless of pre-existing conditions. She added that the system needs fine-tuning but that anyone experiencing problems can contact her office directly for help.
Mitchum said the government mandate that all citizens have insurance violates the Constitution and affects job growth. “It’s the biggest wet blanket,” Mitchum said. “You can’t fix it because it’s never going to fit with our Constitution. And that’s why (the Democrats are) trying to destroy our Constitution.”
Given turmoil in Iraq, Syria and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Mitchum said Congress needs to re-establish military supremacy overseas, which he said was damaged by cuts to the Department of Defense.
“Up until recently, we’ve kept about 90 percent of our troops battle-ready,” Mitchum said. “Russia’s doing what they’re doing because they know we’re not equipped. We’re almost toothless right now and need to get our military back into shape.”
Capps disagrees. “A vast military industrial complex is not my notion of a military that’s lean and mean and well-prepared,” Capps said. “I’m supportive of downsizing where it’s feasible.”
Capps added that she is pleased with President Barack Obama’s planned response of limited airstrikes in Iraq and Syria but is concerned about where the strategy may lead.
“Ultimately this needs to be resolved by the Iraqis and their neighbors,” she said.
Locally, the future of the county’s largest private employer, Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, has become a focus of local officials in light of a looming license renewal deadline and debate over its ability to withstand a large earthquake.
The plant faces a number of hurdles such as possible changes to address seismic issues and an expensive state mandate to change its cooling system before its reactors’ operating licenses can be renewed before the 2024 and 2025 deadlines.
The plant contributes nearly $920 million annually to the economies of San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties and approximately $25 million in property taxes to San Luis Obispo County, according to a Pacific Gas & Electric economic study.
Mitchum, who, if successful in November would inherit the last operating nuclear power plant in California, did not have much to say about the facility. He cited a recent PG&E seismic report that gave the plant a clean bill of health in facing seismic threats.
Capps, on the other hand, said the Central Coast needs to be prepared in case the plant is not relicensed and has been vocal in her calls to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for more transparency and peer-review for its studies of the fault lines surrounding the plant.
“I think we have moved into a new phase of public discourse and I’m committed to ensuring that there’s not a one-time study that’s done and that’s it,” she said.
"We have very different priorities," Capps said of Mitchum. "He's on the record as being for things like privatizing Social Security when my goals are to invest in programs that support strengthening the middle class."
Mitchum’s biggest criticism of Capps as a legislator is the allegation that she toes the party line and votes lock-step with House Minority Leader, San Francisco Democrat Nancy Pelosi.
“If people are happy with the way things are going, vote for (Capps). She gave it to you,” Mitchum said.
Asked why he is running, Mitchum said he was unable to serve his country in the Vietnam War due to a football injury.
“This is my chance,” he said. “The next six years will define the future of this country, mark my words, and this country will define the future of the world. That’s what this is about. That’s why I’m in this.”
Whoever wins on Nov. 4 will join the 114th Congress on Jan. 3.