FEB. 22, 2014
San Diego’s next major election is gaining a growing national profile as incumbent Democratic Rep. Scott Peters tries to hold off a well-financed challenge from Republican former City Councilman and 2012 mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio.
The congressional campaign arms of the two political parties in Washington issue frequent attacks on the opposition candidate.
The group Americans for Prosperity, funded by the conservative industrialist Koch Brothers, is running ads critical of President Barack Obama that tie Peters to the president.
The League of Conservation Voters is running spots praising Peters for supporting environmental protection legislation.
All that before either man has tapped much of the $1 million in their respective war chests. Millions more will flow in before the November general election, both to their campaigns and in spending by outside groups.
Peters says the election boils down to whether voters of the largely coastal 52nd Congressional District want to stick with what he says is his problem-solving attitude, willingness to work across the aisle and deliver on the region’s priorities, such as recently helping obtain $226 million to expand the San Ysidro border crossing.
DeMaio is framing the election around his “new generation Republican” platform. Known during his council years for efforts to overhaul pensions and restrict public employee benefits, he’s focusing economic issues and urging the GOP to drop divisive social issues. That was manifested in a nationally noted ad his campaign produced earlier this month showing him holding hands with his same-sex partner and raising a rainbow flag.
The race is a toss-up, according to most political analysts who have it on a short list of House elections that could go either way.
“This will be one of the top races in the country between two very good candidates,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the The Rothenburg Political Report. “DeMaio is a unique candidate who comes into the race with high name recognition and a proven ability to raise money.
“Peters has proven himself to be very personable, is not taking the race for granted, and he and the Democrats will do their best to make sure the moderate label doesn’t stick to DeMaio.”
Both candidates first have to get through the June 3 primary, where voters have two other choices — Republicans Fred Simon, a Coronado surgeon, and former U.S. Marine and current Coast Guard Reserve officer Kirk Jorgensen. They’re considered long shots as neither has any party or substantial interest group backing them and they lack the campaign cash DeMaio and Peters are expected to amass.
In interviews with U-T San Diego, the two leading candidates talked about the message they’re taking to the district’s nearly 400,000 voters — 32.3 percent of whom are registered Democrats, 33.7 percent Republicans and 28.7 percent independents.
“This district just wants someone who is reasonable,” Peters said. “I told people when I ran two years ago that I was going to take a problem-solving approach and concentrate on San Diego and we’re doing just that. We just have to make sure people know who Carl really is.”
DeMaio counters that Peters, a freshman, is emblematic of the dysfunction in the current Congress where partisan divide has stymied major accomplishment.
“People are just flat out disgusted with the divisive, do-nothing approach,” said the DeMaio, adding that is why more voters are registering as independents. “They want to judge candidates on ideas, on experience and their ability to get things done and that is what I am running on.”
DeMaio said he is a libertarian on social issues and believes tax rates should be lower for all income levels. He wants Obamacare replaced with health savings accounts and tax-deductible premiums, and he’s calling for reducing agency spending through streamlining and competitive bidding on government services.
Peters points out Obamacare was the law when he was elected in 2012. But he also has supported a variety of fixes, including delaying individual and small business mandates.
“The real issue is what can you do to make it better,” he said.
While Peters would raise the federal minimum wage to $10 and vote for the immigration bill passed by the Senate last year, DeMaio would raise the minimum wage only if there are commensurate cuts in regulations so the higher cost to employers can be absorbed. He opposes the Senate immigration bill.
DeMaio points to his role in leading a citywide proposition to revamp the city pension system as the kind of accomplishment he can bring to Washington. He wants to eliminate congressional pensions in favor of a 401(k) plan — similar to what San Diego’s Proposition B did for most future workers — and make Congress live under the laws it passes.
Peters hastens to remind voters he ran on a pledge of no budget, no pay, and notes that a comprehensive federal budget was adopted for the first time in several years.
“The polls are telling Carl he should be pursuing the same course I have, which is working with other people,” Peters said. “I think it’s good he’s moving that way, but he’s never been that way before.”
DeMaio carried the San Diego city portion of the district in his unsuccessful bid for mayor against Bob Filner in 2012.
DeMaio’s appeal to the center includes calling for the GOP to shift from a philosophy of “gut and cut” to advocating for policies to improve the lives of middle class Americans, and an end to polarizing flaps over same-sex marriage and access to abortion.
The Rothenburg Report’s Gonzales said DeMaio knows that turnout will probably be down from 2012 when Obama was running for re-election.
“It’s potentially a lot more Republican this time around, and DeMaio’s profile makes it more difficult for Democrats to just portray him as a knee-jerk, right-wing Republican ideologue,” he said. “That will be one of the fundamental fights of this race.”
Attempts to tie Peters to Obamacare and its woes are also problematic, Gonzales said.
“It will be interesting to see how they run with that against a member who wasn’t there when it was passed.”
In the end, Gonzales said, the mid-presidential term race may be as much about Obama’s popularity as DeMaio and Peters.