SAN DIEGO — The new look of congressional politics in California is playing out in a district that covers most of San Diego and the suburbs of Poway and Coronado — not normally a region considered a political trend-setter.
The 52nd Congressional District race, pitting incumbent Republican Brian Bilbray and Democrat Scott Peters, is competitive, high-spending, and, as a notable San Diegan, the late singer/songwriter Jim Croce, once intoned in a different context, "meaner than a junkyard dog."
The race is competitive because California voters in 2010 stripped the Legislature of the power to draw congressional district lines and gave it to a bipartisan commission. The goal was to create districts that more fairly reflect the state's existing communities and increasing diversity.
With registration close and control of the House up for grabs, both political parties are pouring in money for television advertising in the 52nd. The Democrats smell blood in the water, the Republicans fear losing an incumbent.
And where the parties — or their cousins, the political action groups — tread, negative advertising is sure to follow, said Allan Hoffenblum who analyzes congressional races as publisher of the California Target Book.
"This is what happens when a race becomes nationalized," Hoffenblum said of the Bilbray-Peters race. "The parties and PACs come in and do everything possible to destroy the opponent."
To believe the TV commercials, done in ominous shades of gray, Bilbray is a greedy opportunist who cares more about his corporate buddies than the voters in the district, and Peters is a rich lawyer who messed up the city government while serving on the City Council and then stuck taxpayers with his legal bills.
Until the 2010 switch in redistricting authority, Bilbray was heading for a long career representing the 50th district, where registration favored Republicans over Democrats by 10 percentage points or more. The district's center of political gravity was along the coastal cities of northern San Diego County.
Now he's running in the newly drawn 52nd, where the registration is split more evenly: 32% Democrats, 35% Republicans, 27% independents. Only 40% of his old district is in the new one.
If the 2010 change was meant to allow the emergence of fresh faces, that has not happened in the 52nd.
Bilbray, 61, the son of a Navy enlisted man, and Peters, 54, the son of a Lutheran minister, are known political commodities. Also well known is what opponents feel is their political baggage.
Bilbray talks like a moderate in the district but votes conservative in Washington, his opponents have always alleged. He likes to portray himself as a surfer and a working-class hero, but he spent six lucrative years as a big-business lobbyist between his two congressional stretches, opponents say.
Peters was on the San Diego City Council when it voted to boost city worker pensions without finding a way to pay the costs, setting off the biggest financial debacle in city history. The allegation helped sink his race for San Diego city attorney in 2008.
Peters, an environmental attorney who served two terms on the council, is betting that the pension issue has faded with time and that voters will be receptive to his response: Yes, his vote on the pension issue was a mistake, but he worked closely with Mayor Jerry Sanders, a Republican, to help the city dig out of the financial hole, putting San Diego ahead of other cities with pension deficits.
Bilbray, a former Imperial Beach City Councilman who served on the county Board of Supervisors before being elected to Congress in 1994, counters the attacks on his congressional record by noting that he has supported lifting government regulations that stifle job growth and medical research.
Much like their parties' presidential candidates, Bilbray and Peters each positions himself as the true defender of Medicare and blasts the other as supporting effectively killing the federal healthcare program for seniors.
Although he avoids the word "voucher," Bilbray says it is time to give younger Americans the chance to choose their own retirement medical plan, much like members of Congress. Medicare is headed for insolvency if the Democrats get their way, Bilbray says.
The budget ideas of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), the GOP's vice presidential candidate, a plan that Bilbray endorses, would leave the elderly without decent healthcare by substituting vouchers, Peters told a backyard gathering in Coronado.
With registration close, both candidates have played for the middle. Bilbray would have preferred to run against the more liberal Lori Saldana, a former member of the state Assembly.
In the primary a Bilbray campaign mailer to Democrats, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement, labeled Peters part of the "1%" and supported by business leaders while calling Saldana a "liberal Democrat," defender of Social Security and Medicare, and favorite of teachers.
Peters won a narrow victory, despite outspending Saldana 5 to 1. Bilbray beat four other Republican hopefuls, all to his right, including a tea party activist who called Bilbray a RINO, or Republican in Name Only.
The 52nd District is one of 10 competitive congressional races in the state, Hoffenblum said. "Usually we're lucky if we have two or three."