In a phone conference with reporters yesterday, the deputy political director of the National Republican Congressional Committee said the GOP is at "about parity" with Democrats in the battle for competitive House seats in California this fall -- and that one of the key reasons is that three of what he called 'A-list' candidates for Democrats are now out of the picture.
One of those was Pete Aguilar, a homegrown, local mayor in San Bernardino County, who was victimized by a four-way split vote among Democratic candidates in the 31st District and ended up finishing behind the two Republicans on the ballot. Another was Blong Xiong, a Fresno City Council member who was backed by state and national Democrats, but finished 513 votes out of the money in the 21st District, behind an underfunded Democrat who ran practically no campaign.
And the third is a candidate who dropped out before the race even began -- Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett in the 26th District.
"When he withdraw, Democrats had to settle for a second-tier candidate," said Brock McCleary of the NRCC. "I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that I think Bennett would have stood a better chance."
Lenny Young, strategist for the Julia Brownley campaign, naturally took exception to the description of a three-term assemblywoman who was among the top Democrat challengers in fundraising this spring as a "B-list" candidate. He counters that it is the Republicans who have the problem of fielding a candidate in Sen. Tony Strickland who doesn't fit the district.
"They have a Tea Party candidate who is wrong on every single issue the residents of Ventura County care about, including being on the wrong side of women's health, siding with the big corporate special interests over the middle class and backing the privatization of Social Security," Young wrote in an email. "It's no surprise they are being defensive right out of the gate."
McCleary, naturally, was talking up the resumes of Republican candidates, including Strickland in the 26th District. He said Strickland starts with an advantage because he has represented the entire congressional district in the Legislature, while Democrat Brownley, formerly of Santa Monica, has represented only about a sixth of it. He acknowledged that the numbers on paper make the district a 50-50 proposition for either party. "Tony has literally made a career of winning tough races and beating the odds," McCleary said.
McCleary said both parties have had to educate themselves about California, which has not been a focus of congressional campaigns for decades. The competitive new districts are challenging playing fields, he said, that won't be decided by the kind of hyper-partisan campaigning that frequently marks campaigns in traditional battleground states.
"In many cases, these will be outside of the national narrative," he said. "You'll have individualized races. The question is, how does a Democrat or Republican get beyond just party labels? They will each have the vote that will naturally be there for them, Republican or Democrat, but how do you get that extra few percentage points to get you over 50 percent?"
One approach that won't work, he said, is the kind of boilerplate partisan approaches -- for Republicans, for instance, attacks that smear either President Obama or House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi -- that are often employed elsewhere. McCleary acknowledged that there is a danger for both parties that outside groups will pay for the same kind of advertising that they're accustomed to using elsewhere.
"The boilerplate stuff on both sides is not going to work in these districts," he said.