Pete Kesterson always seems to be talking to somebody about why he’s running for Congress in California’s 36th District against the richest woman on Capitol Hill.
The day after the House – abetted by stealth liberal Democrat Jane Harman – voted to impose health care socialism, Pete is at it again. This time, he’s introducing himself as a conservative Republican – he always makes sure to emphasize the word “conservative” – to the young woman at the Starbucks counter who just handed him his venti coffee.
“And thanks for helping pay for my medical insurance,” he says, smiling. “Because that’s what this health care reform law means – young people like you are going to be paying for older folks like me.” The barista thinks about it for a moment. “Really?” she asks, not thrilled at the prospect. But Pete offers her some hope even as she hands over his change. “Yeah, but we can do something about it,” he answers.
Pete’s not polished like a professional politician, but his years in sales and in the one-on-one financial planning business gave him a head start in learning how to make personal connections with voters. Later that day, at his campaign headquarters a block from the Pacific Ocean, within the space of a few minutes he makes his case to three different walk-in voters. “I believe in free enterprise, in a strong defense, a balanced budget and freedom,” he tells them. They like what they hear and leave with lawn signs.
Pete (Full Disclosure: Pete is a friend and I’ve given him legal advice) was always interested in politics, but he had never run for public office before now. His major prior accomplishment had been to reenergize the Beach Cities Republican Club (It’s mascot is a surfing elephant) so that its monthly meetings in the banquet room of the Torrance Sizzler are now standing room only – albeit with a little help from Barak Obama, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and the rest of the tax, spend and apologize junta .
But as the 2010 mid-terms approached, Pete looked around and decided he just couldn’t take it anymore and decided to take the plunge. He’s not alone. Across the country, regular people with undiluted conservative beliefs are jumping into races – and, like Doug Hoffman in the New York 23rd, they are upsetting more than just the Democrats.
Even more annoyed are the establishment Republicans who look down on the Tea Party rabble who actually believe in all that uncouth conservative talk – but today, lip service to conservatism is no longer enough. The “rabble” is in no mood to tolerate half-hearted runs against entrenched incumbents by weak-hearted moderates whose only goal is to just lose gracefully. Guys like Pete don’t need to pull their punches because he doesn’t have to worry about the awkwardness of running into the Harmans around the country club.
“I’m in this to win it,” Pete says, and you can see he means it. But he does not hide the fact that it is an uphill fight. Rep. Harman is running for her ninth non-consecutive term (she missed one when she launched a disastrous campaign for governor) in a gerrymandered district that writhes and twists up the Pacific Coast from the gritty port of San Pedro through the affluent, sunny cities of Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach up to bohemian Venice, with forays inland to corral enough minority voters to keep the 36th reliably Democratic. Her proudest legislative achievement? Outlawing 100 watt bulbs.
And there is another obstacle – Harman’s husband founded the Harman Kardon audio equipment company, making her the second richest member of Congress.
So Pete understands that if the battle is about money, he loses. Instead, his strategy is to do something that Harman rarely does anymore – get out and talk to real people. “It’s voter by voter, one at a time,” he says. Pete uses social media to keep up the personal contact, with a Facebook page and a Twitter account. His website even features an “Ask Pete” tool for voters to ask questions – which he answers personally. He is at any event in the district where he might meet potential voters – and he is always both the first to arrive and the last to leave, staying to make his case as long as even a single voter wants to talk about why Harman has got to go.
Pete’s got plenty of ammunition on that score, as Harman is the quintessential Blue Dog Democrat – meaning a flaming liberal who drops in on her home district every once in a while to pretend to be a voice of reason standing up to “those liberals running the House back in Washington.” During her failed gubernatorial race, she billed herself as “the best Republican in the Democratic Party,” an astonishing characterization that somehow managed to pack a half-dozen misrepresentations into just seven words.
Harman is a Blue Dog all right – she heels, rolls over and plays dead at Nancy Pelsoi’s command like a eager-to-please puppy, and she votes blue down the line on every issue, including Obamacare. That vote – and her pre-vote pose of uncertainty and deliberation followed by her post-vote assurance that it was greatest single piece of legislation in American history – makes her particularly vulnerable.
The 36th is packed with both hardworking middle class voters and entrepreneurs who will likely be less than thrilled at the notion that they will get to work even harder so that a variety of slackers, weasels and chislers don’t have to be burdened with the hassle of supporting themselves. These are the kind of voters who work hard, save money and generally play by the rules – and Pete Kesterson intends to make sure they understand that Jane Harman and her party look on them as the problem and at taking the proceeds of their hard work as the solution.
The rise of the non-professional politician in response to voter disgust may be the key to the Republicans reclaiming the House in 2010. Voters are rightly suspicious that their representatives will “go Washington” once everyone starts calling them “Congressman,” so the allure of a regular-guy candidate instead of a focus-group tested, talking point-spewing poli-bot is understandable.
Chuck Devore, who was one of those regular guys before winning an open California Assembly seat (I knew him back then as just another National Guardsman doing his monthly drill), laments that “for too many years, service in Congress has been the domain of the professional elected class.” Devore, who is running in the June primary for the chance to take on the endangered Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), pointedly observes that too many representatives are “far removed from the reality of an honest job.”
That’s not the case with Brad Goehring, a family farmer running in California’s Republican-leaning 11th Congressional District. Disgusted with the federal government’s water policies, he finally had enough and threw his hat in the ring to help knock another faux-Blue Dog Democrat, Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA), out of office. The morning I spoke to him, Brad had been up before six, in coveralls, fixing a tractor, and then had put on a suit and tie to get to his first campaign event of the day.
Brad is a Republican, but considers himself a conservative and a “Constitutionalist” first. Unlike many professional politicians, he does not talk about process – he talks about values and principles, and his reverence for the Founders quickly comes through. “Those men left their families, their farms, their businesses, and risked everything,” he says. “We need that kind of spirit in Washington more than ever. We need new ideas and blood.”
But can newcomers like Pete Kesterson and Brad Goehring win? So far, the national Republicans have taken a wait and see attitude. From their perspective, with 435 battles to fight across the country, it might be prudent to wait to see which of these newcomers will get traction and which will just spin their wheels before committing resources. Hopefully, Republican voters in safe districts will pick up the slack and adopt an underdog – Pete, Brad and Chuck need all the help they can get to challenge the establishment.
Pete has his own perspective. “The voters in the 36th are mad as hell about bailouts, about spending and now about this health care debacle,” he says. “I know because they tell me. And they are ready for a change.”
And Pete knows one more thing: Back in 1994, Harman hung on to her seat by just 812 votes. “And in ’94,” Pete says, smiling, “The voters weren’t anywhere near as mad as they are right now.”