Republican Elan Carr did the unthinkable this week: he won the primary in California’s 33rd congressional district, winning nearly 22% of the vote and defeating 17 rivals in a district that elected Democrat Henry Waxman for 40 years. Now Carr will have to do it all again: he faces the best possible Democrat–i.e. the worst possible opponent–in State Sen. Ted Lieu, who finished second with 19% and is favored to win the general.
Both men are experienced public servants: Carr as a gang prosecutor in Los Angeles, Lieu as a legislator in Sacramento. Both men are also veterans: Carr in the Army, Lieu in the Air Force. Both men ran as moderates, with Carr downplaying hot-button issues like Obamacare and immigration, and Lieu focusing on transportation and the National Security Agency. Both men campaigned well and stood out, even in a very crowded field.
The district is very fortunate to have a choice between candidates of such high caliber. Each would be an asset to his party, to the district, and to the country as a whole.
The numbers, however, favor Lieu–heavily.
Based on the party registration figures alone, Carr starts at a 17-point disadvantage. Unless Carr wins every independent voter–an impossible task–he will have to peel off more than a few Democrats to defeat Lieu in November.
That would be easier to do if there were something obviously wrong with Lieu–if he had been caught up directly in the numerous corruption scandals rocking Democrats in the State Senate, for example, or if he had expressed hostility to Israel, which would have alienated supporters in one of the most pro-Israel districts in the country.
Yet Lieu’s record, while vulnerable in places, has yet to show any serious and exploitable political deficiencies. In fact, Lieu has taken a few brave stances lately–positions that alienated the left, but which were arguably the right thing to do.
Case in point: Lieu joined other Asian-American legislators in opposing an effort to overturn Proposition 209, the 1996 referendum that banned the use of race in college admissions and public contracts. He’s still reliably liberal, but he’s earned the ire of irascible lefty local editorial writers–a point in his favor.
Lieu also deserves credit for the way he campaigned, a style that evoked the old “Tortoise and the Hare” fable: slow and steady wins the race (or qualifies for the runoff, in this case). Never flashy, always composed, he was unfazed by the large field and by the riskier tactics employed by some of his opponents to gain attention. He found a unique, newsworthy message that appealed across the wide spectrum–stop the NSA!–and stuck to it.
The biggest surprise in the 33rd was that independent Marianne Williamson, the spiritual adviser and author whose early candidacy arguably convinced Waxman to retire, finished a distant fourth, with about 13%. She raised the most money, enjoyed the backing of several Hollywood A-listers, and had an army of hundreds of enthusiastic activists. Her yard signs were ubiquitous across the district, and she seemed poised for an upset.
Yet as they say in Chicago: “Yard signs don’t vote.”
Williamson made two mistakes, in retrospect: she declined to advertise on television, and she did not invest in polling. It is not good enough to generate “earned media” and general enthusiasm: a campaign has to know how to reach its own voters in particular, and bring them to the polls. With precious little new data on her own potential supporters, Williamson was running in the dark.
Not so with Carr, who knew exactly where his voters were: watching the Fox News Channel.
He was not only the first candidate to run television ads, but he also ran them where it counted. Even though cable news in general is on a downward slide, those who watch it are more likely to vote in low-turnout primary elections. Though few voters in general knew anything about Carr, Republican voters in the 33rd district knew that he was their man.
Nothing can take away from Carr’s achievement in winning the primary. Democrats may try to minimize Carr’s success by pointing out that their party was split ten ways, and that the top three Democrat finishers more than doubled his winning vote total.
That is all true–and, as predicted, none of the Democrats managed to top 20%. Yet Carr was one of three Republicans in the race. Only he prevailed–and he did so through hard work and skill.
He’ll need more than that, however, to solve the Ted Lieu puzzle.
A Republican consultant, weighing the numbers, might advise Carr that since he has very little chance of winning, he may as well run the most dignified campaign he can, drawing attention to a few key issues, building his political profile for the future.
Yet that’s not in Carr’s nature. He’s a fighter. Talk to him for even just a few minutes, and you realize that he’s in it to win it.
So Carr’s task is to find some weakness in Lieu’s candidacy. His campaign seems convinced that the economy is the key. But it’s not clear voters will blame Lieu personally for the state’s broader woes.
One possible option: focus on term limits, which pushed Lieu out of Sacramento but which do not exist in D.C. The prospect of another 40-year incumbent could unite Lieu’s opponents, left and right, behind Carr.
That, and incredible luck.