||One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.|
Stuart Rothenberg: Spotlight on California races
By Stuart Rothenberg
January 4, 2000
Web posted at: 4:57 p.m. EST (2157 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Following is a look at two key races in California:
Right up until filing in December, it looked as if Rep. Steve Kuykendall, a GOP freshman who won an open seat in 1998, would face a second-tier challenger in 2000. But former Rep. Jane Harman's entry into the race clearly changed all that, giving the Democrats another opportunity for a takeover that they hope will contribute to a Democratic House after this year's elections.
Kuykendall, a former state legislator, squeezed out a 48.9 percent to 46.8 percent victory last time, a result that was somewhat closer than observers anticipated. The GOP has been weak in California over the past few election cycles, and that probably hurt Kuykendall, whose brand of moderate Republicanism (especially on so-called social issues) would seem to fit this district well.
Harman represented the 36th District for three terms before giving up the seat to run for governor. With a reputation as a moderate on fiscal and defense issues, and armed with substantial personal wealth (via her husband), Harman was a credible contender for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. But she and wealthy businessman Al Checci were beaten handily by then-lieutenant governor Gray Davis in the primary.
Harman's comeback attempt this year gives Democrats a credible candidate in a district they were about to write off. But she had problems holding onto the congressional district and begins as a narrow underdog to Kuykendall.
She was unable to make her seat safe while she was in Congress, and Harman almost lost the seat in 1994, when conservative Rancho Palos Verde councilwoman Susan Brooks (not regarded as the ideal GOP candidate for the district) fell short by a mere 812 votes.
Harman was aided in her first run for the seat, which was created after reapportionment and redistricting, by the poor Republican year in 1992. She might well have lost the district to a strong challenger in 1994, and she lucked out when Brooks again was the GOP nominee in 1996. But even in 1996, with more than a 3-to-1 financial advantage, Harman won with just 52 percent of the vote.
Kuykendall, a former Marine, was mentioned last year by columnist Bob Novak as a possible party-switcher. But he quickly and unequivocally dismissed talk that he might defect to the Democrats.
Part of the reason that a Kuykendall-Harman race should be close is the district's competitiveness. The 36th C.D. is a diverse district, with reliable Democratic voters located in the northern part of the district -- in Venice and around Los Angeles International Airport -- and reliable Republican voters located along the upscale Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Money could be a factor in this year's contest. Kuykendall spent about $785,000 in his 1998 race, far less than the $1.6 million (in 1996), $1.3 million (in 1994) and $2.8 million (in 1992) that Harman spent in her previous races.
The Republican fits his district well, but the GOP's national image could help Harman in her quest to regain her old district.
By almost any standard, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) looks like a formidable candidate for re-election. But the Republican field to challenge her grew larger -- and more credible -- when Rep. Tom Campbell (R-CA 15) announced late last year that he would give up his seat in the House to run for the Senate.
Campbell, who represents the 15th C.D., a politically moderate swing district south of the San Francisco Bay area, ran for the Senate in 1992, losing a GOP primary to conservative Bruce Hershensohn (who, in turn, lost to Democrat Barbara Boxer in the fall).
A law professor at Stanford, Campbell served in Congress before his Senate bid and returned to the House of Representatives in a 1995 special election.
At this point, Campbell faces two serious primary opponents: San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn and state Sen. Ray Haynes. Businessman J.P. Gough is also running. (Wealthy businessman Ron Unz was in the race briefly but has already dropped out.)
Feinstein served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors before winning election as mayor of San Francisco. She was elected to the Senate in a 1992 special election, and two years later won a full term by turning back a blistering challenge from then-congressman Michael Huffington (R). She spent over $14 million in the race, about half of what her GOP opponent spent.
Feinstein was openly critical of President Bill Clinton's behavior over the Monica Lewinsky matter, and she is often mentioned as a potential running mate for either Al Gore or Bill Bradley. Republicans would like to have a credible candidate against her in the Senate race in the event that she tries to run for two offices at once.
Early polling shows Feinstein ahead of any of the Republicans. A mid-December Field Poll, for example, shows her leading Campbell 50 percent to 31 percent in a general election test.
The GOP isn't likely to beat Feinstein, no matter who they run against her, but Campbell's candidacy adds an interesting challenger and could help the party's overall image in California.