Contentious California race hinges on candidates’ styles

Greg Nash

SAN DIEGO — One of the closest House races in the country could come down to style as much as substance. 

Freshman Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) wants to win his hard-fought reelection battle by proving he’s a deal-maker who can soothe partisan tensions to get things done. His opponent Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego councilman and an openly gay Republican, wants to show he can blast through congressional dysfunction and battle opponents in both parties to create change.

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The two are locked in a nasty and expensive race in a toss-up district centered in San Diego and its wealthy suburbs. Both might seem like they’re pitching to the center to win, but this top GOP pickup opportunity could ultimately come down to which well-known candidate’s temperament voters respond to better. 

The ‘Tea Party’ label

The animosity between DeMaio and Peters runs deep. The two have known and battled one another on local issues for more than a decade. 

Now, Peters is championing his ability to play nice to build trust, and DeMaio is arguing his pugnacious style produces real results.

The freshman Democrat’s success might hinge on whether he can successfully paint DeMaio as a rigid Tea Party adherent and argue that DeMaio’s liberal social stances won’t translate into centrist politics in other areas. 

Peters, a former environmental lawyer, city councilman and port commissioner, said his decision to run for Congress stemmed from the dysfunction he saw after the 2010 Tea Party wave. He peppers his speeches with names of GOP congressmen he says he’s developed working relationships with, from nearby politicians like conservative firebrand Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.).

He touts his support for “No budget, no pay” as well as his work on military issues, his push to change parts of 

ObamaCare and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law, his support for the large local military population and his fight for San Diego’s “science and innovation economy.”

The freshman congressman is quick to rattle off support from groups that don’t always back Democrats, like the American Medical Association, as well as from local Republicans: former San Diego Chamber of Commerce heads and DeMaio’s former financial committee chairman. Peters says, even when he was an environmental attorney, he looked for common ground.

“I was good at trying cases, but I was really great at settling them,” Peters said. 

DeMaio is one of just three openly gay Republicans running for the House this year, and he has been adamant that his party needs to move on from social issues. A self-styled “government reform geek” and “reformer,” he’s quick to criticize both “Tea Party Republicans who light their hair on fire in the town square” and establishment Republicans, saying he’s no “apologist for big business.”

He lost a tight mayoral race in 2012, winning the district he now hopes to represent, and voters know him better than Peters due to his high exposure from that contest.

Peters’s campaign released its first attack ad last week, calling DeMaio “divisive” and playing a clip of him telling a Tea Party group during his mayoral campaign that he’d “owe… you, and our collective movement, everything” if he won.

DeMaio is quick to put distance between himself and the Tea Party movement but doesn’t deny he’s gotten under some people’s skin. In fact, he seems to relish it.

“San Diegans don’t know me as the gay Republican, they know me as the watchdog, the reformer, the guy who stands up and speaks truth to power, sometimes ruffles some feathers. I’m proud of that sometimes,” DeMaio told a few dozen older voters at a local Lions Club meeting in downtown San Diego Tuesday evening. “Sometimes, I could say that a little more artfully and softly but with the same effect, but at the end of the day, I want to get us beyond labels and challenge this party.”

Congressional ‘pond scum’ backlash 

While Peters jokes that his position as co-chairman of the bipartisan algae caucus makes him “a successful pond-scum politician,” DeMaio seems to think that that’s the only type that exists in Washington and argues Peters is more interested in holding office than getting results. 

A main plank of his campaign’s “Fix Congress First” platform is ending congressional perks, and the Republican rails against lobbyists and backroom deals in every speech.

The biggest policy victory DeMaio touts is a referendum he helped push through to reform the city’s pension system, one he took to the voters after failing to find consensus on the city council. Peters routinely points out that DeMaio never voted for a city budget while on the council and was the lone dissenter on 102 different city council votes.

Peters won his last race by less than 7,000 votes, and both campaigns are predicting a nail-biter election this time around. The incumbent is combating Democratic midterm drop-off but ultimately might have a more robust get-out-the-vote effort. Almost 30 people were in his campaign office making calls on a Tuesday afternoon, many of them volunteers, while fewer than 10 were in DeMaio’s office at the same time the next day.

Rivalry reignited 

There is clearly no love lost between the two men. DeMaio described Peters as “affable” but “bland” in an interview and later rolled his eyes, as he described Peters’s style as “let’s all get along, let’s all huddle and let’s all get along.”

“Politicians that say that have said that for so many decades, and it’s not realistic,” he continued. “What I’m trying to say is, let’s lay our solutions that people can agree with, let’s focus on things that we genuinely want to accomplish together and build consensus around those ideas. … We need candidates that are candid and honest about their positions and then seek common ground from there.”

The GOP hopeful had to be asked twice to name any members of Congress in either party he was looking forward to working with, eventually naming Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) and touting his work with San Jose’s Democratic mayor to push a statewide pension reform initiative.

The congressman was recently caught on camera expressing clear frustration with the way DeMaio has been portrayed nationally.

“Now he’s saying, ‘Well, I’m a gay man. I must be moderate. And I’m pro-choice, I’m pro-environment.’ And I’ve got to tell you, around the country, where people don’t know him, they completely buy it,” Peters said to a local Democratic group.

He told The Hill that he stands by his remarks.

“I said Carl DeMaio is not a moderate. He’s the one who’s raised these issues, who’s hanged these ornaments on him to show he’s a moderate,” he said last Tuesday. “The notion of governing is yelling at people at the microphone, that’s him.”

DeMaio mocks Peters’s claims at reform, saying they’re window dressing on an ineffectual career.

But during a Peters speech to the Coronado Rotary Club in the swank island town, the congressman got a notable shout-out.

Howard Somers, who has led an effort to raise awareness and education for returning veterans after his son committed suicide, stood up to commend Peters for helping him make connections in Washington.

“Scott has been an unwavering and untiring advocate … for everyone,” he told the group, after apologizing for wading into political waters. “We’ve made it a point not to be politically involved, but in this case, there’s just a difference between Scott and his opponent.”