|Splitting the Vote
Back in February, when Bowen announced she'd compete with Hahn to replace Jane Harman as our congress member, Hahn's number one priority was to get Marcy Winograd in the race. Not only did Winograd have significant name recognition after running two unsuccessful campaigns against Jane Harman, her base of support drew from the same pool of voters Bowen would need to win - progressives who lived north of LAX.
So Hahn's campaign used a story that appeared in the Jewish Journal, "Harman's departure: what does it mean for Jews?" to manufactured a narrative of concern for the district's Jewish community about Jane Harman's potential replacement in congress. I say manufactured, because the article itself expressed no such concerns, concluding,
Harman's departure may mean one less Jewish player in the game, but the impact of that loss on Jewish influence will likely be negligible. While the landscape for Jewish politics in the next two years includes fewer safe districts for Jewish elected officials, the community can be assured of holding sway on numerous fronts as its high level of civic involvement continues to stand out in the city and region.
But that hardly mattered to Hahn, who just needed an excuse to create a wedge between Winograd and Bowen.
Using the article as a launching pad, Hahn's campaign demanded that Debra Bowen sign on to a pro-Israel "pledge" genetically designed to ram a red-hot poker through Winograd's eye. The pledge called out Winograd by name, sited some of her harshest rhetoric against Israel, and concluded with this quote from Henry Waxman,
"In Marcy Winograd's foreign policy, Israel would cease to exist. In Marcy Winograd's vision, Jews would be at the mercy of those who do not respect democracy or human rights."
At that moment Bowen had a choice to make; ignore Hahn, (and risk creating an issue with the district's Jewish community) create her own statement of support for Israel minus the Winograd-bait, or sign on to Hahn's pledge.
Bowen chose to sign on to Hahn's pledge. And walked right into the buzzsaw that is Marcy Winograd's ego.
Two days later, Winograd, who had previously told key supporters she wouldn't run, told those same supporters she was furious that Hahn and Bowen had tried to "silence dissent in the 36th district", and asked them to withhold endorsements from Bowen. Four days after that, Winograd announced she would run, specifically citing the Hahn/Bowen pledge as the reason.
Let Loose The Dogs Of War
Hahn's strategy worked better than she could have hoped. Despite no institutional support, anemic fundraising, and polls showing she'd be lucky to get even 6% of the vote, Winograd nevertheless ran the most aggressive campaign she could given the circumstances. Even better, Winograd and her supporters barely mentioned Hahn, but attacked Debra Bowen, Winograd's closest competitor, relentlessly.
One "passionate" and prolific Winograd surrogate wrote scathing posts on progressive listserves and blogs questioning Bowen's progressive credentials, others accused her of being a closet Republican and (bizarrely) a Jane Harman clone. A paid Winograd campaign staffer, Peter Thottam, wrote a widely distributed and unsourced hit piece on Bowen, accusing her of trading votes in exchange for Enron campaign contributions while she served in the State Senate.
In effect, Winograd's campaign became the opposition research farm-team for Hahn, who used their attacks in her own campaign, even using Thottam's hit piece verbatim in one of her attack mailers against Bowen.
Republicans? What Republicans?
While Hahn, Bowen, and Winograd duked it out on the Democratic side, a previously unknown evangelical millionaire named Craig Huey from Rollings Hills Estates was quietly consolidating the Republican vote.
Huey, who made his fortune in direct marketing, poured half a million dollars of his own money into the campaign, giving him more resources than any other candidate in the race.
The money allowed him to blanket the district with more than just lawn signs - with it he bought cable TV and radio time, and ran a targeted mailing campaign which rivaled Janice Hahn's.
Backed by prominent Republicans Dana Rohrabacher, Tom McClintock, and former Assemblyman Chuck Devore, in the final few weeks leading up to election day Huey simply overwhelmed the anemic and underfunded campaigns of his closest Republican competitors, Mike Gin, the gay, moderate, pro-choice mayor of Redondo Beach, and Redondo Beach City Attorney Mike Webb.
Yet right up until election day, the media largely ignored Huey - even as they fell all over themselves to cover stunt candidate Dan Adler, who's entire campaign consisted of a series of bizarre YouTube videos staring himself and campaign manager/actor Sean Astin (Adler got a grand total of 355 votes)
But not everyone was ignoring Craig Huey. In fact, Janice Hahn and her campaign were paying very close intention.
The Best Opponent Money Can Buy
A couple of weeks before election day, Hahn's campaign reportedly ran a tracking poll which showed Huey surging in the polls and consolidating Republican support.
However, Bowen's aggressive, state-of-the-art field campaign (1,100 volunteers, 350,000 phone calls, 15,000 doors canvassed) still kept Bowen solidly in second place and Huey out of the runoff.
So Hahn, who believed Huey would be a far easier candidate to beat in the runoff than Bowen, chose her moment.
Five days before election day, Hahn invested heavily in a multi-pronged direct mail attack. A series of negative campaign pieces targeting Bowen arrived in voter's mailboxes - one mailer appeared to support Winograd's campaign, another hit Bowen for old campaign contributions, and yet another used attacks from the Winograd campaign staffer who accused Bowen of selling her votes to Enron.
In part, that mailer read, "Some people went to jail for this. Debra Bowen wants to go to Washington."
The tone and deceptive nature of the mailers stunned Bowen and Hahn supporters alike. Bill Brand, a Redondo Beach City Councilman who endorsed Hahn in the race, told supporters in a GOTV email he "wasn't happy with the last minute negative pieces." With a runoff still to come, many activists in the district were dismayed Hahn had gone so negative so early against the well-liked Secretary of State.
But Hahn's strategy worked. Bowen's support lagged in the final few days, even as Huey's surged. In the end, Huey beat Bowen by 750 votes in an election where only 18% of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot.
Hahn was clearly happy with the result, telling the Daily Breeze,
"I would rather run against him than Debra Bowen. I think the choice for voters is more clear."
Winograd, who had received 41% of the vote when she ran against Jane Harman in 2010, barely received 9% of the vote this time around.
Ironically, it was more than enough to ensure that Janice Hahn, who claimed to be Jane Harman's hand-picked successor would be the district's next representative in Congress.
Be Careful For What You Wish For
Without a doubt, Janice Hahn will be our next Congresswoman in CA-36.
But that victory has, and will, come at a price.
Nearly a week after defeating Bowen in a bitterly contested race, Hahn has shown little interest in mending fences with her activist supporters. Bowen herself declined to endorse Hahn, citing a long-standing policy as Secretary of State. So I don't see this rift healing any time soon. To be frank, it really doesn't have to, the specter of a Tea Party Republican taking the seat is motivation enough for most people. And as I said at the beginning of this piece, Hahn has more than enough resources and institutional support to beat back a challenge from Craig Huey regardless (although unions will have to commit resources to defend this seat in a way they wouldn't have had to if pro-union Debra Bowen had been in the runoff).
But Hahn's margin of victory probably won't be a landslide. In 2010, Assemblywoman Betsy Butler - whose district covers most of CA-36 - had an uncomfortably close call with Tea Party candidate Nathan Mintz. In a district that has 18% more registered Democrats than Republicans, Mintz took 43% of the vote.
In that race, over a 100,000 voters cast a ballot. The May 17th special election had only about half that turnout, and the runoff in July will likely be even worse. So barring any unforeseen scandals involving farm animals, Craig Huey has a good chance of building on Mintz's success. Not enough to win certainly, but enough to get everyone's attention.
But the real problem isn't this year and this election. It's next year, when CA-36 becomes significantly different, and potentially much more conservative, after redistricting.
From what I've heard and read, CA-36 is probably going to lose everything north of LAX, and potentially gain back Palos Verdes. Palos Verdes, connected to an Orange County district by a block-wide strip in Long Beach and a narrow strip of San Pedro, is profoundly gerrymandered. Those Republicans have to go somewhere.
If this happens, it would significantly cut into Democrat's voter registration advantage, and create a district that more closely resembles the one in which Janice Hahn previously ran for congress in 1998.
Hahn lost that race, to Republican Steve Kuykendall, 47% to 49%.
Janice Hahn got the opponent she wanted. But by helping to advance Huey into the runoff, Hahn has elevated him from an unknown evangelical advertising consultant to a national figure in the Tea Party movement. The media isn't ignoring Craig Huey anymore. He has two months to build up his name recognition and base of support. And when he loses in July, he can turn right around and start stumping for the June 2012 primary race in a district likely to be far more receptive to his message.
Janice Hahn will be our next representative in Congress. She has indeed won that battle.
But in doing so, she may have put herself in a position to lose the war.