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Democrats: California Dreamin'

It may be a long-shot, but House Democrats have signaled they want to be competitive in a pair of California districts in which the longtime incumbents are facing federal investigations.

Just today, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released a web video questioning a $10 million profit reaped by Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.) when he sold property to the town of Monrovia, Calif., outside Los Angeles.

Readers should not over-react to the web video, because the DCCC has put no actual money into airing the ad in Miller's district. What it says, though, is that Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the campaign arm, wants a credible challenge to Miller. First elected in 1998, Miller has won re-election comfortably ever since, running unopposed in 2006.

In fact, the DCCC recently had its political director in Miller's district talking to local Democratic officials about finding a suitable challenger to the real estate developer-turned-congressman. And the week of April 9, while the House is in the second week of its spring recess, Van Hollen will be in southern California raising money but also talking to potential Democratic challengers to Miller, according to Democratic strategists.

In addition, Van Hollen also hopes to meet with potential challengers to Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), the former Appropriations Committee chairman whose connections to a lobbying firm that represented many municipalities, schools and utilities in that region has come under scrutiny by federal investigators. Lewis drained almost $1 million from his campaign account to pay a large team of lawyers to defend him.

This probe, as well as the propriety of Miller's land sale, is being overseen by the U.S. Attorney's office in Los Angeles.

Without corruption, Democrats probably have no chance against Miller or Lewis. "We think they'll be able to more than hold their own," said Julie Shutley, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, noting that both lawmakers survived, easily, in the "toughest of environments" last year.

The political make-up of the Miller and Lewis' districts is remarkably similar. Lewis, whose investigation was publicly revealed last May, still cruised to his 15th term with 67 percent of the vote. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) received just 37 percent in Lewis' 41st district as the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, an almost identical percentage that Kerry took in Miller's 42nd district. In his 2002 and 2004 races, when he at least had a Democratic opponent, Miller won with 68 percent each year.

So what makes Van Hollen and House Democrats think they have a chance against these two? Call it the "Doolittle model".

"If you have a Republican incumbent who has ethical problems, even in Republican-leaning districts, they are vulnerable," said Jennifer Crider, DCCC spokeswoman.

In 2006, Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) headed toward re-election in almost identical circumstances as Miller and Lewis. In the previous two elections, Doolittle took 65 percent of the vote, and Kerry received 36 percent in the 4th district, which sits outside Sacramento. But Democratic nominee Charlie Brown pounded Doolittle for his relationship with imprisoned ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who paid Doolittle's wife $5,000 a month for consulting services in 2002, 2003 and 2004 while her husband was doing legislative favors for Abramoff. Federal investigators subpoenaed Julie Doolittle's business records and later summoned client records from her.

No charges were ever brought against the Doolittles, but, with some heavy television ad support from the DCCC, Brown almost knocked off Doolittle, who won with less than 50 percent. Brown is running again against Doolittle, who is no longer a member of GOP leadership and has pledged to pay closer attention to the needs of his district.

So the anti-Miller video released today is a sign of what sort of TV air support the DCCC might provide a credible challenger. It's unclear whether the probe into Miller, or Lewis, will develop any further or will wither away. But Democrats have shown their hands at the sort of hard-hitting ads that might come.

To the tune of Bachman-Turner Overdrive's 1970s anthem "Takin' Care of Business", the video shows Miller at a city council meeting pleading with Monrovia officials to purchase his land - and, as the Los Angeles Times reported last year, Miller then reported to the Internal Revenue Service that his sale was under threat of imminent domain from the town, allowing him to avoid paying immediate capital gains taxes. Miller has denied any wrongdoing, contending that his taxes were properly paid. But the U.S. Attorney's office in Los Angeles has begun an investigation into the sale, and subsequent Times' reports have raised questions about how Miller has allegedly inter-mixed his taxpayer-funded staff for personal business interests.

By Paul Kane  |  March 27, 2007; 5:35 PM ET
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Excellent story. Sorry to have to edit you, bit the final graf reference to "imminent domain" should read "eminent domain."

Posted by: Jason Marsden | March 27, 2007 9:51 PM | Report abuse

Even with investigations underway, it's tough to see how Democrats can pull off wins in such lopsidedly Republican districts, Dolittle or no Dolittle. Democrats made things worse in both of these districts by redrawing them with increased GOP voters after the 2001 Reapportionment. A strong GOP challenger to Miller may be more credible. The area has had its share of political scandals. In fact, Miller himself benefitted from another politician's downfall: he beat then Rep. Jay Kim (R-CA) after Kim was convicted of campaign finance violations and given house arrest. Jerry Lewis, however, has never had to worry about an election since winning his seat back in 78.

Posted by: prox76 | March 27, 2007 10:18 PM | Report abuse

Burn down the house - it gives off too many CO2's. We're all goin gto die from rising oceans, waaaaaaa!

Posted by: EARTHhasAfever | March 28, 2007 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Sounds like it was "imminent eminent domain."

Posted by: MrVee | March 29, 2007 4:27 AM | Report abuse

Splendid piece. Keep it up.

Posted by: Herbert-Jean Awuor | March 29, 2007 8:25 AM | Report abuse

I played a small part in Charlie Brown's campaign against Doolittle. I can tell you beating an ethically-challenged incumbent is very possible as this race was very close--2.4 points separated winner from loser and Doolittle received less than 50% of the vote as noted. I agree with the poster that a well-qualified Republican primary challenger has a better chance but in practice this is unlikely. The party apparatus will support the incumbent leaving the challenger with little money or infrastructure to win a primary in these geographically huge districts with little media concentration. Someone with independent money and existing name recognition would be needed.

Brown was a first-time candidate for office but was very credible as a retired Air Force officer and police department employee. He had a solid platform both in line with his own philosophies and those of moderate voters in his district. He will likely run again in 2008.

Just south of CA-04 Richard Pombo was tossed out in another right-leaning (though not as far) district by another inexperienced but appealing challenger, Jerry McNerney. It can be done, and Lewis and Miller are obvious targets.

Posted by: Bob in CA-04 | March 29, 2007 10:06 AM | Report abuse

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