With a conventional wisdom that would make David Broder blush, the New York Times issued a dire warning to Democrats yesterday: 2010 will be a bad year, no incumbent in Congress will be safe, and expect to spend much of the time playing defense. Here in California, progressives should not let such talk intimidate them, and focus on playing offense. No matter how angry voters are at Democrats and Congress, they hate the Republicans even more. California has eight red congressional districts that Obama carried in 2008 (with demographics in their favor), so there's no reason not to have credible challengers everywhere. I met recently with such a candidate - Beth Krom from Orange County's 48th District.
Eager to narrate a sequel of 1994, the Times' Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny focused their front-page story on the "plight" of Democratic Congressman David Obey - the powerful Appropriations Committee Chair who has represented Wisconsin's 7th District for 41 years. But despite a challenger who's popular with Teabaggers, the Times' own chart pegs the race as "solid Democratic" (meaning that Obey is heavily favored to win.) For Republicans to take back the House, they must win every "toss-up" seat - plus a handful of races currently leaning Democratic, and defend all 20 seats now leaning their way.
Forget momentum has shifted since Congress passed health care reform, to the point that G.O.P. elders are starting to get worried about their Party's chances. Never mind that Latinos continue to be a larger share of the electorate, and that Arizona's racist new law will galvanize that community to vote in higher numbers. Ignore that Republicans have been so taken over by the nativist, Teabagger wing of their Party that they will alienate swing voters in the general election. And forget millennial voters turned out in record numbers over the past three elections, which is important, because such a pattern makes them voters for life.
In California, Secretary of State Debra Bowen just released new voter registration figures with good news for Democrats. Over the past four years, Democrats have gone from 42 to 44 percent of the statewide electorate. Republicans, on the other hand, have shrunk from 34.5 to 31% - or a three-point decline. Decline-to-state voters, of course, also increased a couple percentage points (as they have for years now), but independents in California heavily favor Democrats over Republicans. While the Tea Party movement may measure voter intensity, it certainly doesn't show a political shift.
Last year, I wrote a piece for Beyond Chron called "Red California Death Watch" where I outlined the eight Congressional districts in California represented by a Republican that Obama won. The Democratic Party ignored most of these districts that year (but a couple came close), so there was no excuse not to field eight serious challenges in 2010. Far from 2008 being a "high-water mark," demographics is a big reason why these districts are trending blue.
Even when it's too early to tell whether it will be a good election cycle, Democrats must leave no district behind. 1998 was a good year for Democrats (due to a backlash against Kenneth Starr's witch-hunt), but they didn't win control because they didn't contest enough seats.
In Orange County, Irvine City Councilmember Beth Krom is running for Congress this year, taking on two-term incumbent John Campbell. The district has never had a serious Democrat run, and demographics still make it a daunting task. But while Teabaggers are giving Republicans all this grassroots "energy," G.O.P. registration in the 48th dropped 3 points in two years (47 to 44%), or twice as fast as the statewide trend. Democrats are up one percentage point (28 to 29%), and "decline-to-states" are up two points (20 to 22%.)
I sat down with Krom, when in Los Angeles for the California Democratic Convention. She's not fazed by the tough road ahead, citing her record of winning elections at the local level in Irvine, which is a Republican town. "I've never had an easy race," she said. Municipal elections are non-partisan, but her Republican opponents always tried making her Democratic affiliation an issue. Having started her career as a neighborhood activist, Krom is running on her record as a "results-oriented" collaborator in local government.
The incumbent Congressman she's challenging, John Campbell, has made a name of himself for pandering to the "birthers." He introduced legislation requiring all candidates for President to submit their birth certificate, which earned him some ridicule on the Daily Show. But as Krom pointed out to me, the 48th may be Republican-leaning, but it's also a highly educated district. And, moreover, it has a thriving immigrant population.
The conventional narrative in the media is that Democrats had a "good thing going" in 2006 and 2008, but now political momentum dictates that 2010 will be a year where they have to play defense. In California, pundits will say the race to watch is whether the East Bay's Jerry McNerney can hold onto the seat he took away from Richard Pombo in 2006. What they ignore is that McNerney didn't just win that seat because it was a Democratic year; he won because Republicans are increasingly out of touch with Californians.
McNerney's win in 2006 was an extension of Ellen Tauscher's victory in 1996 over GOP Congressman Bill Baker. As the Bay Area expands, suburban sprawl means Democratic progress. In Orange County, Loretta Sanchez defeated Bob Dornan in 1996, turning Anaheim blue. There's no reason why Beth Krom can't do the same in Irvine this year.
Which is why there's no reason Democrats shouldn't stay on the offense in 2010, taking on Republicans like John Campbell, who act as if Orange County hasn't changed since the 1950's. Beth Krom's campaign is what we need to be seeing more of this year.
Paul Hogarth is the Managing Editor of Beyond Chron, San Francisco's Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published.