Politics & Government

California incumbents hold the cards at re-election time

WASHINGTON -- San Joaquin Valley congressmen enjoy the luxury of safe seats, though it's bad form to say so.

Instead, the Valley's incumbent House members just keep raising money as if the November outcome were actually in doubt. Take nothing for granted, that's their motto.

"I take all elections seriously," insisted Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "We campaign hard all the time."

Every Valley incumbent sings the same tune; none of them want to be accused of overconfidence. Barring an outright disaster, though, the combination of political gerrymandering, incumbent fundraising advantages and a careful tending of constituent interests guarantees the sitting House members remarkable job security.

Last go-around, for instance, Nunes whomped his 2006 Democratic opponent by a 67-30 percent margin. Look for more of the same this year. As of March 31, Nunes had $836,325 sitting in the bank. His declared Democratic opponent, Lawrence Tufts Johnson, had $804 available.

Without money, Johnson and challengers like him can't buy ads, hire staff or command attention. Without money, candidates can't get taken seriously by the political professionals who control the spigots from which, you guessed it, still more money flows.

"I'm a third-tier candidate," acknowledged Johnson, a 61-year-old retired airline captain from Clovis.

He describes a third-tier candidate as "people like me running in Republican-leaning districts against a strong incumbent. If any money is left over at the end of the day, (donors say), 'Yeah, we'll send you 50 bucks.'"

Incumbents have no such problem -- nor are they inclined to let up on either the fundraising or the campaign spending.

"I'll be spending money in my district," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, adding that campaign season "is an important time to communicate with your (constituents)."

Cardoza had $306,105 socked away as of March 31. Like Nunes, he does not have a declared major party opponent. Rep. George Radanovich of Mariposa has a relatively modest $108,047 available, but without a Democratic opponent he need not worry. Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, had $504,079 available.

Costa's declared Republican opponent, decorated Vietnam veteran James Lopez, has not yet filed any fundraising reports. Costa, nonetheless, is planning for upcoming fundraising events in Fresno and, later this year, Bakersfield.

"One of the ways you discourage significant opposition is to not take anything for granted, and to maintain a strong war chest," Costa said.

That still hasn't deterred Lopez, who acknowledges that fundraising has been slow and limited to small donations. Still, fellow Vietnam veteran Rep. Duncan Hunter, an El Cajon Republican and former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has agreed to do a fundraiser for Lopez.

Lopez, a Bakersfield resident, has been spending time early in the campaign walking business districts, marching in parades and speaking to any group that will have him.

"It's a mountain to climb, but I'm going around picking up enough rocks to knock off Goliath," he said.

Besides money, Valley incumbents enjoy multiple other advantages. Their staffs -- typically including up to half a dozen or so employees within the congressional district itself -- help track Social Security checks, obtain military benefits and resolve the other day-to-day problems that together get lumped under the title constituent service. Another word for constituents: voters.

Incumbents get to send out mail at taxpayer expense, through what's called the congressional frank. In 2005, for instance, Costa sent out 165,000 pieces of mail at a postage cost of $28,550. This was more than his south San Joaquin Valley colleagues. Cardoza, for instance, only sent out 15,480 pieces of franked mail at a cost of $4,447, a National Taxpayers Union study shows.

Incumbents tend to get lots of invitations, broadening their public exposure at events like Memorial Day and Fourth of July parades.

"My nature is to work my district very hard, and to reach out to the voters," Costa said.

The Valley's congressional districts are also drawn for the benefit of a particular party, the real challenge to any incumbent would come in a primary.

Cardoza's 18th Congressional District, for instance, currently has a 48-34 percent registration advantage for Democrats. In Costa's 20th Congressional District, Democrats hold a 61-33 percent advantage. In Radanovich's 19th Congressional District, Republicans have a 45-37 percent advantage, while Nunes represents the 21st Congressional District, where Republicans dominate by a 48 percent to 35 percent margin.

"I know I'm an unknown," said Johnson, the political novice who is challenging Nunes. "I realize I don't have great name recognition. But we'll see what happens. There's always that shot."