Washington’s election-year power struggle has spilled into two hotly contested congressional races in the Inland Empire region, where results were once as predictable as a hot summer day in Hemet.
Rejiggered political districts and the GOP’s declining membership have given Democrats a shot in both races next month — victories the party is counting on in its effort to pick up 25 additional seats and recapture control of the House.
The high stakes have triggered millions of dollars in spending by the parties and independent groups trying to nationalize the races into a referendum on such hyper-charged Washington issues as President Obama’s healthcare overhaul and the steep tax cuts proposed by GOP vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan.
In one of the races, the Democratic Party has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into efforts to defeat Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack of Palm Springs, who is facing the toughest challenge of her 14-year congressional career from political newcomer Raul Ruiz, a Democrat and emergency room doctor.
In the other battle, House Speaker John Boehner traveled west this summer to help raise money for Republican John Tavaglione, a Riverside County supervisor who is running in the wide-open district centered in Riverside. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also came to the aid of Tavaglione, launching a $220,000 television ad campaign attacking his Democratic opponent, high school teacher Mark Takano.
“It’s nice to have contests for a change,” said UC Riverside political scientist Shaun Bowler. “In the past, outcomes have been about as regular as they are in Cuba or North Korea.”
Only two Democrats have gone to Washington from Riverside or San Bernardino counties since Richard Nixon was in the White House — Rep. George Brown, a Vietnam War foe, and Rep. Joe Baca, who replaced Brown after he died in 1999.
As it has statewide, Republican voter registration has eroded in the Inland Empire region, where the population has grown by nearly a million in the last decade. In 2002, the majority of voters in both counties were Republican. Democrats now claim a slim majority in San Bernardino County, and in Riverside County, the GOP’s 13-point advantage has been cut in half. Last year’s independent redistricting turned a number of Republican-leaning districts competitive.
The impact has been tremendous on the 41st Congressional District, which includes Riverside, Moreno Valley and a slice of Ontario. Five-term supervisor Tavaglione has a clear advantage in name recognition, but Democrats have a registration edge of three percentage points.
“It’s one of those competitive seats that no one is talking about … and it’s going to be important for deciding control of the House,” said Nathan L. Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan publication that covers congressional campaigns.
Tavaglione is campaigning as a moderate, touting his efforts to help bring 40,000 new jobs to the recession-flattened region and carefully distancing himself from tea party Republicans. At a recent debate in Riverside, he told an audience he supports abortion rights as well as a “path toward citizenship” for illegal immigrants and, although he supports tax cuts, refuses to sign conservative activist Grover Norquist’s pledge against tax increases.
“I sat around watching the debt-ceiling debate … and I was disgusted, by my own party and the Democrats not being able to come together for the benefit of our country,” Tavaglione said.
Democrat Takano, a community college trustee running on a platform of increased support for education and job creation, tells voters not to be swayed by his opponent’s appeal to the middle. He noted that Tavaglione in the past raised money for former President George W. Bush and has received a contribution from the Koch brothers, the billionaire energy executives who have backed Republican candidates and conservative causes.
“I don’t believe we can count on you to stand up to John Boehner or Paul Ryan,” Takano said. “You’re going to empower a Republican ideology in Washington which is going to double-down on trickle-down” economics.
Congress’ unpopularity also has provided ammunition for the campaigns. Bono Mack casts her opponent as one of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s minions, a tactic Bono Mack used to beat back challengers in the last two elections.
Aiding the cause, two Republican “super PACS” and the Republican Party are spending more than $1 million on television ads and mailers against Ruiz that are rife with allegations that he would be Pelosi’s puppet.
“It’s the same-old, same-old with” Bono Mack, Ruiz said. “People are tired of it. They realize she’s part of the hyper-partisan problem in Washington.”
The split between Republican and Democratic voters in the 36th Congressional District, which includes Palm Springs, Indio and Blythe, is a mere one percentage point, favoring the GOP. That’s a far cry from 1998, when Bono Mack first ran for office and the GOP had a 14-point advantage.
The most coveted demographic in the district is residents 55 and older — about half the voter pool. That has made Medicare a focus of the campaign.
Ruiz, aided by a half-million-dollar television ad campaign by the Democratic Party, has attacked Bono Mack for supporting Ryan’s budget plan, which he says would turn Medicare into a voucher system and would cost seniors an extra $6,000 a year. Bono Mack and her supporters attack Ruiz for supporting the president’s healthcare act, which they say includes a $716-billion cut in Medicare.
Jim Specht, spokesman for the Bono Mack campaign, said the congresswoman has fought off Democrats for years partly because of strong support from both conservatives and moderates.
Julie Bornstein, who ran unsuccessfully against Bono Mack in 2008 and now teaches politics at the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, says the congresswoman survived past challenges by branding her opponents as liberal, a tactic that Bornstein expects to be less effective in the new, evenly split district.
Along with money pouring in, both sides have increased their attacks against one another. Bono Mack has accused Ruiz of being a “radical” for taking part in a Native American protest of Thanksgiving when he was a Harvard medical student in the late 1990s. A super PAC backing Ruiz also has filed a complaint against Bono Mack with the Federal Election Commission, accusing her of possibly soliciting illegal campaign contributions.
Voter turnout may be the deciding factor, Bornstein said.
“The vote for Ruiz is there,” she said, “but I don’t know if they’re going to go to the polls.”