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GOP looks for special-election upset

Republicans are hopeful they can pick off a Los Angeles-based House seat long held by Democrats in Tuesday’s special election.

The odds are against their candidate, businessman Craig Huey, but he’s surprised observers on both sides of the aisle by making the race closer than expected.

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Both Democratic and GOP strategists tell The Hill they believe he’s trailing Democratic candidate Janice Hahn by 5 points. And a new poll out Monday, conducted by the Dem-leaning Public Policy Polling for Daily Kos and SEIU, shows Hahn leading Huey by 8 points — a small margin in a heavily Democratic area.

Huey has spent extensively to get to this point. He’s dropped about $1 million into the race, most of it his own money.

Meanwhile, Hahn, a Los Angeles City Councilwoman, has failed to reunite the district’s liberal base after a divisive primary. She’s spent close to the same amount, but it’s money she’s raised — not loaned — her campaign.

The district favors Democrats: President Obama won 64 percent of its votes in 2008, and the party has an advantage in voter registration.

Also working against Huey is the Republican Party’s subpar record in special elections. The most recent example was Republican candidate Jane Corwin’s loss in May’s special election in New York. In an embarrassment for the party, the GOP candidate failed to win the Republican-leaning district. 

GOP operatives are downplaying Huey’s chances, trying to set expectations low so that a win would be seen as a shocking result. 

But special elections are notorious for their low turnout and can have surprising results, leaving Democrats somewhat nervous about the race.

That Huey is even in the race is a shock: Many didn’t expect a Republican candidate in the general election. The race was the first to test California’s newly minted “jungle primary” system, in which candidates from all parties run on one ballot, and the top two vote-getters of any party move on to a runoff if no one wins 50 percent on the first ballot.

“We expect it to be close — it’s all going to come down to turnout; it’s going to be a very low-turnout election,” said Huey spokesman and adviser Dave Gilliard on Monday. “We’re excited about the possibility that we can pull this off tomorrow.”

Hahn was expected to be in the runoff with fellow Democrat Debra Bowen, the California secretary of state, but they, along with liberal anti-war activist Marcy Winograd, split the Democratic vote in the May primary and Huey slipped by Bowen.

Hahn, whose brother was Los Angeles’s mayor, benefited in the first round of voting from high voter familiarity with her last name, a strong ground organization and a slew of early endorsements from prominent Los Angeles Democrats. Huey spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the first round to raise his name identification.

But the City Councilwoman has struggled to unite Democratic voters after a sometimes-nasty primary in which she and Bowen attacked each other on environmental and labor issues. Supporters of the far-left Winograd also could be less enthusiastic about Hahn, an establishment candidate.

In a sign that Democrats are worried, labor and Democratic groups — including President Obama’s Organizing for America — and former President Clinton have stepped in to help Hahn in the campaign’s closing days: Clinton recorded a robo-call, and OFA will run a phone bank to help get out the Democratic vote.

Whether Huey wins or not, he could be in a good position for another run in fall 2012. California’s nonpartisan redistricting commission will likely make the district a bit more conservative before the next election, and his strong performance this year and willingness to spend his own money could make him viable in a general election next year.

The seat was left vacant when former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) left Congress late last winter to take over a foreign policy think tank. She held the seat for eight terms and, since 2002, had easily won reelection by a double-digit margin.