By Christopher Cadelago
SIGN ON SAN DIEGO
September 24, 2011
Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray could face challenges from two high-profile Democrats, making the campaign among the most intense in the region and placing it on the national chessboard in the struggle over control of the House in 2012.
Former Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña has announced her candidacy for the redrawn 52nd District and Port of San Diego Chairman Scott Peters, former president of the San Diego City Council, plans to make a decision in the coming days.
Republican John Stahl, who has garnered early appeal among tea party activists, poses a challenge from the right.
Even before attracting opponents, Bilbray was widely considered as facing the greatest re-election threat of local members of Congress, thanks to a newly drawn district in an area that President Barack Obama won by 13 points in 2008.
The once-a-decade redistricting process shifted Bilbray’s North County-based district south to more Democratic friendly communities of central San Diego. The new 52nd District, adjusted to reflect updated census figures, has only a 3-point advantage in Republican registration, down from a nine-point edge last year.
The national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted Bilbray with two early onslaughts of automated telephone calls and posted billboards condemning him for choosing “millionaires over Medicare.”
Before fully taking on Bilbray, however, Democrats may first have to sort out their side. Supporters of Saldaña and Peters expressed hope that both wouldn’t run, avoiding an intramural tussle that could weaken the winner in a showdown with Bilbray in November.
Democrats have targeted Bilbray in past elections to varying degrees, but the 11-year incumbent has proved resilient and shown the ability to adapt to a new district before.
The new boundaries of the 52nd District sweep south from Poway through Clairemont, taking in La Jolla, downtown San Diego and Coronado.
Each campaign has identified what it believes are advantages. Democrats point to the president’s success there while Republican’s cite former eBay CEO Meg Whitman’s eight-point advantage there in the 2010 gubernatorial race against Democrat Jerry Brown, who went on to win the election.
Bilbray has sought to remind voters that he represented large swathes of the area earlier as a congressman and county supervisor. In an interview, Bilbray said he was focused on improving the slumping economy and creating jobs.
“My priority every day is to get Americans working again,” he said. “It’s that simple. At the same time I’m fighting to stop the wasteful federal spending that is bankrupting our nation.”
Republicans have historically won elections in which they maintain an advantage in registered voters, but there have been exceptions, said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego.
“Bilbray is more vulnerable than he was in his previous district,” said Jacobson, a congressional expert. “It’s a potentially winnable district by a Democrat in a Democratic year, but I don’t think 2012 is shaping up to be a Democratic year. It certainly won’t be anything like 2006 and 2008.”
Saldaña, who served six years in the Assembly before stepping down because of term limits in 2010, said she would continue her record in office as a consensus builder and work to restore education funding and protect benefits for seniors. She has garnered early endorsements from party leaders.
“I have very strong Democratic principles and values and right now we need that more than ever when we see threats to our seniors’ benefits,” said Saldaña, an instructor at San Diego State University.
No incumbent should be complacent in next year’s election, given voter anxiety over the economy, said Thad Kousser, a political-science professor at UCSD. He said Bilbray’s district is in play in part because of the nearly even Democratic-Republican voter registration.
“We finally have swing districts to pay attention to,” Kousser said.
The potential swing factor has enticed others to look closely at the race. Peters, who in prior elections has demonstrated the means to self-fund a campaign, said the voters in the new 52nd District mirror his political sensibilities.
“I think the attractive thing about this district is it really matches me,” Peters said. “It doesn’t seem like one that’s really suited toward extremism. This is a district that is going to want to send someone to Washington that’s going to get something done.”
His potential to appeal to members of both major parties and the new “top-two” primary system — where the top two vote getters advance to November regardless of party affiliation — has fueled speculation that he might run as an independent.
Former Democratic state Sen. Steve Peace, who was the leading advocate for the new system, said Peters could gain 10 points by doing so.
Peters said he’s always been a Democrat, and believes he would have the support of both independents and Republicans.