The first post-election race of the open primary era turned out to be just like others prior to the new election law passed last year: a contest between a Republican and a Democrat.
Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, a Democrat who won the most votes, will take on Republican businessman Craig Huey for the right to represent the 36th Congressional District. Huey scored a stunning upset when he came in second place during the open primary May 17, narrowly ahead of Democrat and Secretary of State Debra Bowen.
The open primary in California sends the top two winners to the runoff if no candidate wins 50 percent or more of the vote in the first round.
The conventional political wisdom was turned on its head when Huey, a wealthy conservative businessman from Rancho Palos Verdes, poured $500,000 of his own money into his campaign. In the waning days of the open primary, he blanketed South Bay homes with direct mail, which many believe provided him the margin of victory over Bowen, who previously represented the district in the Assembly and the state Senate.
After the election, the Republican businessman said the 36th Congressional District, which includes Venice, Mar Vista, portions of Playa del Rey and the South Bay, was essentially up for grabs.
“I am very thankful and deeply honored by the results,” Huey said after the election. “This district does not belong to any one party or political machine. It belongs to the people, and they are responding to our message of fiscal sanity and more jobs.”
David Hadley, the president of the Beach Cities Republican Club, thinks Huey has a good chance of prevailing in the runoff by focusing on fiscal concerns, which he believes voters of all political persuasions are concerned about.
“It is not a partisan issue to worry about the U.S. facing a financial crisis; that is where we are heading,” Hadley said. “I predict that Craig is going to make this the centerpiece of his campaign.”
Jim Kennedy, a campaign consultant who was affiliated with Bowen’s campaign, believes Huey’s base is in the South Bay and he will find it difficult to gain traction north of Los Angeles International Airport.
“I would seriously doubt that he would be a threat to Hahn in the northern part of the district,” said Kennedy, who worked as a field deputy in the district for former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice). “There has been a real leadership void for Republicans in the district and he took advantage of that, along with spending $500,000 in the election.”
Hadley conceded that Huey’s financial largess benefited him in the open primary, given the fact that other Republicans like Patrick “Kit” Bobko and Michael Webb had almost the same economic platforms.
“Craig Huey’s ability to self-fund his campaign was definitely a factor,” he acknowledged. “Bobko and Webb had similar messages to Huey on fiscal issues, they are good candidates and they are part of the GOP’s future in this area.
“However, while Huey has not held elective office, he has decades of involvement in this community.”
Despite not having a strong base in Venice, Mar Vista and portions of Playa del Rey, Hadley says Huey’s primary strategy could work in the runoff as well.
“For the traditionally more liberal voters in the northern-third of the district, I think the winning formula for Huey is to focus on fiscal issues that almost all Americans share,” he said. “The Democrats are rapidly boxing their fiscal position into a defense of ‘don’t cut anything’, and the status quo is bankrupting America.”
David Jacobson, Hahn’s communications director, said the councilwoman is well positioned for the runoff.
“Janice has a strong record on the Port of Los Angeles and the environment in the South Bay, and we’ve been working very hard in Mar Vista and Venice as well,” he said. “She had a very strong showing in the northern part of the district in the open primary and we will again in the runoff.”
Hadley claimed that Democrats would not be unified for the runoff and thinks that it could show at the polls.
“The left is not united, which may depress their turnout,” he predicted. “Bowen is apparently not going to endorse Hahn. I don’t believe that (Marcy) Winograd has endorsed Hahn. The Republicans are relatively united by comparison.”
Jacobson disagrees that Democrats are not unified. He pointed to a slew of endorsements that the councilwoman has obtained before and after the open primary from established Democratic organizations and lawmakers.
“It’s very clear that Democrats are united,” he countered.
Winograd, a Democrat who came in fourth place, immediately encouraged her supporters to work toward getting Hahn, whom she criticized throughout the campaign, elected.
“Huey would like to buy his way into Congress, so that the super rich can privatize America and abolish all regulations, including environmental protections,” Winograd wrote in an email after the election was certified. “Though few media pundits took him seriously, we must now mobilize to defeat him.”
Bowen said she would continue her policy of not endorsing a candidate as the top elections official in the state. “As secretary of state, I have always implemented a strict policy of not endorsing candidates to avoid even a perception of conflict, and I will continue that policy,” she said.
Kennedy thinks that Huey’s conservative message and lack of name recognition in the northern part of the 36th will put him at a disadvantage.
“That will not translate into anything in Venice and Mar Vista,” Kennedy asserted.
Hadley says it would be unwise to count Huey out.
“I would not underestimate Huey’s personal experience – a lifetime of direct marketing,” he said. “He ran a very effective campaign in the primary and I believe he will do it again in the general.”
Hahn, who has numerous labor and environmental organizations backing her as well as major Democratic lawmakers, recently announced a new round of endorsements May 24, led by Gov. Jerry Brown and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Huey has received endorsements from South Bay businessmen and local, state and national conservative Republicans.
The runoff election date is July 12.