Bono Mack added to Dems’ target list

At first glance, Rep. Mary Bono Mack (Calif.) doesn’t appear to be the most vulnerable Republican for Democrats to target.

She touts one of the most centrist voting records of any Golden State House Republican, particularly on social and environmental issues, and she was reelected with 58 percent of the vote in 2008.

“She’s battle-tested,” said Allan Hoffenblum, the publisher of the California Target Book. But “beating her has been a pipe dream Democrats have had for quite a while.”

It’s a dream Democrats argue is coming closer to reality. They note that President Obama carried Bono Mack’s district last year and point out Republicans have lost their voter registration advantage in the sprawling Coachella Valley district.

Of the eight Republican-held House districts that Obama carried last year, Bono Mack’s has become one of the top three that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) will target in 2010.

And Dems’ hopes lay in Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet.

Pougnet is part of the party’s strategy to go on the offensive in 2010. If Republicans have to devote funds to playing defense, Democrats’ reasoning goes, it will weaken the GOP’s efforts to knock off the 54 first- and second-term Democrats.

Pougnet, who was a career fundraiser before entering politics, is aggressively building a campaign operation and hasn’t shied away from criticizing Bono Mack.

In an interview with The Hill, Pougnet said Bono Mack’s vote against Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus package shows she is out of touch with district.

“Listen, she unilaterally dismissed the president’s stimulus package without even seeing it, as did her entire party,” he said. “They’ve taken a political gamble, and this is no time to take a political gamble in this district.”

With that vote, Pougnet said, Bono Mack showed she has fallen in line with her Republican colleagues.

“If there is a time to be bipartisan,” he said, “it is with this new president who was elected in a landslide.”

Pougnet said he is running on a platform of job creation and environmentally friendly policies. As Palm Springs mayor, he notes, he created hotel restoration and creation projects that gave developers tax incentives to revive hotels and create jobs in the process.

Republicans, however, have been ready and willing to return fire.

Frank Cullen, Bono Mack’s chief of staff, said there is some irony in Pougnet couching his announcement in job creation when unemployment in Palm Springs has soared to higher than 13 percent.

And the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) put out a release touting those statistics when Pougnet announced.

“Apparently Steve Pougnet thought it was opposite day when he overstated his abysmal record as mayor of Palm Springs,” said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the NRCC, in the statement.

Republicans also point to Bono Mack’s win in spite of Obama carrying her district as a sign of her resilience. The district is rated Republican +3 by The Cook Political Report and, as Daniel Schnur, a California Republican strategist, noted, “you’d have to assume that the midterm elections create as strong a Democratic wave as Obama’s did in order to see a competitive race there.”

One big reason why Democrats are excited about Pougnet is his background in fundraising. After he graduated college and began working for the United Way, Pougnet made a career in raising money. After his work there, he went on to become vice president of development at the Colorado School of Mines.

And Pougnet has set out an ambitious fundraising plan.

“This campaign is going to have to raise a couple millions dollars,” he said. “There is no doubt about that. I am aggressively raising money from Democrats, Republicans and independents.”

Pougnet’s sexual orientation could also factor into the race. Pougnet insisted he will not make his homosexuality a campaign issue, but there is a growing gay population in the district. And the gay political network in California has been energized after Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage, was voted into law last year.

Equality California, a gay-rights group, has already taken an interest in the race. The group’s executive director, Geoff Kors, said his organization typically does not endorse in federal races. However, because Bono Mack declined to oppose Proposition 8, Pougnet’s race is on the radar screen.

Bono Mack’s office said that the congresswoman does not take positions on state ballot initiatives. They noted, however, that Bono Mack broke with her party to vote against legislation that would have defined marriage as only between a man and a woman.

Nevertheless, the gay community appears to be focused on the campaign.

“The LGBT community sees this as a very important race,” Kors said. “People see Steve as the most credible challenger she will ever have.”

Because of this race and another California General Assembly race, Equality California is opening an office in the district and devoting at least two field staffers to the area.

Additionally, the Victory Fund, a prominent national fundraising organization for gay and lesbian candidates, endorsed Pougnet in his run for mayor. It has not, however, endorsed Pougnet in this race, but has spoken with Pougnet about his campaign.

Pougnet, however, is focused on other issues and believes he has the credentials to upset Bono Mack.

“I have positioned myself by being bipartisan and as someone who has various accomplishments on job creation and environmental programs that are important to this district,” he said.