In the past 10 years, Democrats have just been names on the ballot in California’s 4th District.
Incumbent Rep. John Doolittle has always won reelection with more that 60 percent of the vote.
This year Charlie Brown, a retired Air Force colonel, is trying to change that. He has raised about $450,000, more than any other Democratic Doolittle challenger has raised and has been trying to impress upon voters that their incumbent is unethical and rarely in the district.
But so far, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has not helped finance Brown’s campaign, although it has directed Democratic-leaning PACs, such as those of several labor unions, his way. The party committee, however, is monitoring the race closely; it talks to the campaign at least once a week and offers encouragement and direction.
Armed with an internal poll showing him in a statistical dead heat with Doolittle, Brown was in town this week in part to try to persuade the DCCC to invest in his race.
Benenson Strategy Group, a firm that also works with the DCCC, conducted the poll at the end of August. It shows Doolittle leading Brown by just 41 percent to 39 percent with 17 percent saying they didn’t know who they would vote for “if the election were held today.” The poll had a 4.9 percent margin of error.
The survey of 400 likely voters matched the district’s registration by party, said pollster Pete Brodnitz, who also conducted polls for Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D).
That number is standard for House races, he said. Only in very diverse districts do the numbers go up to 500 or 600 likely voters, he added.
California’s 4th District has 48 percent registered Republicans, 32 percent Democrats and 20 percent either independent or unaffiliated voters.
In the past, the district has been widely considered conservative and a safe Republican seat. As of September 7, the Cook Political Report still regarded the seat as “likely Republican.” Presidential candidate John Kerry (D) won 37 percent of the vote in 2004 and Al Gore received 38 percent in 2000.
But in the past year, Doolittle and his wife have been linked to the Washington scandals involving former GOP super lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.)
Doolittle has received $200,000 in contributions from a California defense contractor, a co-conspirator who was not indicted in the bribery case against Cunningham, and from Jack Abramoff who pleaded guilty in January to conspiring to corrupt public officials. While most lawmakers either returned donations from Abramoff and Wilkes or donated them to charity, Doolittle has refused to do so.
“The poll is certainly encouraging because John Doolittle has made himself vulnerable by tying himself to some of the most high-profile ethical scandals in Washington,” said Kate Bedingfield, regional press secretary for the DCCC.
But Bedingfield said that the DCCC does not comment on strategy and where it allocates its resources.
Doolittle Chief of Staff Richard Robinson argued that those poll results are not consistent with their own internal polling.
“In fact, they do not even come close to resembling reality,” Robinson said, although he declined to produce the poll, saying that the campaign has never divulged its polling results.
“We are very happy with our campaign and the response that the congressman is getting around the district as he talks about keeping our taxes low and securing our borders and protecting our troops,” Robinson said.
Brown’s biggest challenge to date is name recognition, which is difficult to increase in a large, geographically diverse district that stretches from Lake Tahoe to the Oregon border.
“It is a big district. There are still a lot of people out there I need to meet,” Brown said in an interview yesterday. The district has a population of 650,000 and voter registration is at 417,000.
Brown is also racing against time. About 35 percent of the voters in the district are permanent absentee voters and the ballots will go out to them on Oct. 9. California allows permanent absentee voting, and many people who live in very rural areas choose to mail in their vote.
Brown is holding out hope to receive financial support from the DCCC, but acknowledges that the party committee is swamped with scores of Houses races around the country that could help Democrats take back the majority.
In the meantime, he has made Doolittle’s ties to Abramoff and Wilkes a central campaign issue, but is also zeroing in on national security, the war in Iraq and social issues such as healthcare and employment.
The Brown campaign has been airing radio ads and is putting the finishing touches on TV ads that are going to run in a couple weeks.