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.
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