Politics & Government

11th District battle emerges as California's toughest House race

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Jerry McNerney rode one wave into office. Now, he's hoping another won't wash him back out.

The 59-year-old Pleasanton Democrat is caught in what neutral political analysts consider California's most competitive campaign. If McNerney wants to keep representing some 374,000 San Joaquin County residents, he must run the race of his life.

Again.

"I have to take this seriously." McNerney said. "It's clearly going to be a close race."

In 2006, aided by national environmental groups, McNerney toppled Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy. McNerney's 53 percent to 47 percent winning margin that year was further propelled by the broad anti-incumbent sentiment that stripped Republicans of their congressional majority.

McNerney's 2006 victory was a marked turnaround from 2004, when he lost by a 61-39 percent margin. It also put a dramatically different face on the 11th Congressional District, which stretches from Ripon and Escalon west to Morgan Hill.

Pombo was a rancher who didn't finish college and who co-wrote a book attacking what he called government's "war on private property." McNerney has a doctorate and worked as an energy consultant. He's writing a book on energy policy, which he hopes to have published next Earth Day.

Pombo was a staunch conservative. McNerney, early on, talked about joining the avowedly liberal Congressional Progressive Caucus, although he says he never formally did.

"I consider myself a moderate," McNerney said Thursday, allowing that he might not have called himself that when younger. "I consider my district to be a moderate district."

The 11th certainly has a more competitive cast than other California congressional districts, which are gerrymandered for maximum incumbent protection. Republicans and Democrats each claim about 39 percent of the district's registered voters.

The district's San Joaquin and Contra Costa county residents tend to be more Republican, while the Alameda and Santa Clara county residents are more Democratic.

In 2008, a good year for Democrats, McNerney spent about $3 million to beat his GOP opponent by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin.

"It's a Republican-leaning district," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "I would have to think that district looks like it's going to change hands."

Nunes portrayed McNerney as a "left-wing" lawmaker for whom "there is never any question" about whether he'll support Democratic leaders. The Republican candidate, attorney David Harmer, similarly declares on his website that "Jerry McNerney has been adamant in his support for Nancy Pelosi and (President Barack) Obama's big-government agenda."

Harmer misspells the president's first name on his website.

McNerney voted in support of Obama's position 93 percent of the time last year, according to CQ Weekly's annual tally. He's backed the administration's signature efforts, including a $787 billion economic stimulus package and a sweeping health care reform bill.

At the same time, McNerney now says he has "been a little frustrated" that the Democratic-controlled Congress hasn't done more to directly boost jobs. Asked how he has differed from Democratic leaders, McNerney cited his support for gun owners and for repeal of the estate tax affecting farmers and ranchers.

He speaks warmly of his 2006 campaign as "a lot of energy bubbling up" and a "real grassroots" effort; this year's campaign, he says, is "more of an operation." The environmental groups that spent more than $1 million on his behalf in 2006 have largely turned to other races this year.

McNerney's campaign treasury stockpiled $1.2 million as of June 30. Roughly one-third of his funding comes from political action committees, including some that formerly gave to Pombo. By contrast, only 15 percent of McNerney's 2006 funding came from political action committees.

His fellow Democrats speak approvingly of his fundraising discipline as well as his growing legislative acumen.

"His learning curve has been very aggressive," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. "He's grown in office and he's become an effective representative."

By some measures, McNerney appears to have become more conservative.

In 2007, the non-partisan National Journal found McNerney had voted the liberal position on foreign and economic policy more often than three-quarters of his House colleagues. In 2009, he was voting the liberal position more than only about half of his colleagues.

McNerney's voting record is now among the most moderate among California Democrats, though he said he wasn't cognizant of moving toward the political center.

"I've always thought of myself as a practical person," McNerney said. "I want to get things done."

His bills have often related either to veterans or to energy issues. This year, for instance, he has sought to boost combat pay for troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Compromise has been inevitable. McNerney's original bill would have boosted monthly hostile fire pay to as high as $600 a month. Currently, it's $225 a month. The provision finally added to an annual defense bill increases this pay less dramatically, and less expensively, to $260 a month.

"You have got to look at what's doable," McNerney said, "and you have to look at what's needed."

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