||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
Death of a congressman gives GOP chance to pick up House seat in California
Democrats may be looking at a real race for Gejdenson's seat
By Stuart Rothenberg
August 6, 1999
Web posted at: 2:42 p.m. EDT (1842 GMT)
WASHINGTON (August 8) -- The death of Rep. George Brown of California means a September 21 primary (with a possible November 16 runoff), giving Republicans a chance to win a seat that they have eyed for years.
Brown, first elected to the House of Representatives in 1962, had a number of electoral close calls in recent elections, including a narrow win in 1994 against a second-string GOP challenger and an even more narrow 996-vote win over Judge Linda Wilde (R) two years later.
But Brown's past election problems may be misleading, since fundamental changes have been taking place in the district. Insiders note that the 42nd congressional district has been trending Democratic recently, and voter registration figures show Democrats with a 51-34 percent registration advantage. Recent Democratic statewide candidates, including Gov. Gray Davis and Sen. Barbara Boxer, have won the San Bernardino district comfortably.
Two obvious Democratic names surfaced immediately after the congressman's death: His widow, Marta Macias Brown, and state Sen. Joe Baca.
Shortly after the congressman's funeral, Baca issued a statement announcing his intention to run and portraying himself as the late congressman's natural heir. But Baca had in the past talked of a possible primary challenge to Brown, so some Democrats who admired and supported the late congressman may hold hard feelings toward Baca.
Mrs. Brown has also announced her candidacy. Roll Call, Capitol Hill's leading newspaper, recently reported that 37 of 38 widows of sitting members of Congress had won House races, and three widows -- California's Mary Bono (R) and Lois Capps (D), and Missouri's Jo Ann Emerson (R) -- are currently serving in the House.
But Baca has plenty of friends in the state legislature as well as in Congress, and most observers (as well as private polling) insist that he begins the race with a significant edge over Mrs. Brown.
Fontana Mayor David Eshleman is also looking at the race and is likely to run, but a Brown-Baca primary fight could become personal, creating bitter feelings that could linger. At least that's what Republicans are hoping.
The GOP needs some help in the special to win. State Sen. Jim Brulte, one of the party's strongest potential candidates, has decided against running. Businessman John Corry, who planned to challenge Brown in 2000, may not run in the special, but businessman/attorney Elia Pirozzi, who ran in 1998, is a likely contender. Linda Wilde may also be a candidate, and her 1996 showing suggests she could take advantage of any Democratic division.
The short time until the special primary (where all of the candidates appear together and any candidate earning more than 50 percent of the vote is automatically elected) and the runoff (pitting the top Republican against the top Democrat) adds to the pressure on the candidates.
The Republicans would love to pick up this seat, off-setting the loss of New York Rep. Mike Forbes, who recently switched to the Democratic Party. But the GOP may not want to make California 42 a major test for fear of giving the Democrats momentum going into 2000. For the Democrats, their major concern is a nasty, divisive fight between Baca and Mrs. Brown that could enhance the Republicans' prospects and chances of an upset.
Democrat Sam Gejdenson has had some close calls since he was first elected to Congress in 1980, but last year was a laugher for him. That's not likely to happen again next year, however, since the Republicans have recruited a credible challenger.
Gejdenson represents the eastern third of the Connecticut, and his district is fundamentally competitive. While he won many re-election contests easily, he barely survived against a GOP state senator in 1992. Two years later, the congressman won reelection by just 21 votes.
State Rep. Rob Simmons, 56, announced in March that he is running. A graduate of Haverford College and the recipient of an M.P.A. from Harvard, Simmons spent a year and a half as an Intelligence officer in Vietnam in the late 1960s. After a stint at the CIA, he joined the staff of Sen. John Chafee (R-Rhode Island) and later became staff director of the Select Committee on Intelligence under Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Arizona). (The last GOP congressman from the district, Bob Steele, who served in the early 1970s, once was a CIA agent.)
Simmons returned to Connecticut in the mid-1980s, ultimately winning a special election to the Connecticut General Assembly in 1991. A fiscal conservative but social issue moderate, he has been re-elected since then.
The GOP challenger has never raised a great deal of money for his state races, but he had raised about $80,000 (including a personal loan to the campaign of about $10,000) through June 30 for his congressional bid. Gejdenson, on the other hand, is a proven fundraiser. He hauled in over $1.4 million in 1994 and just under $1.2 million in 1996.
Once regarded as one of the ultimate "swing" districts in the nation, the 2nd c.d. hasn't sent a Republican to Congress since the 1972 election. That fact, plus Gejdenson's proven fund-raising skill and ability to win the close ones, gives Democrats a reason to be confident about 2000. But they ought not to be too confident, since Simmons is the best candidate the Republicans have put forward in this district in many years.