Thursday, November 09, 2006

Jerry McNerney: Inexperienced, Underfunded and Underestimated

From today's Contra Costa Times:
Pombo falls to unlikely defeat: McNerney refuses to bow to long odds

By Lisa Vorderbrueggen

Not too many months ago, political analysts said seven-term Rep. Richard Pombo could not lose in District 11, where he enjoyed the power of incumbency and solid party-registration advantage.

But Jerry McNerney, a little-known mathematician, toppled the Tracy Republican on Tuesday in the only major state upset.

Pombo now holds the record in California for flipping a seat to the opposing party while holding a 6 percentage point party registration advantage. It's also the first East Bay congressional ouster since 1996, when Ellen Tauscher, D-Alamo, beat Republican Bill Baker of Danville in a neighboring district.

"District 11 was so heavily gerrymandered that we told people they could scream and yell about Pombo all they want and it wouldn't make any difference," said Tony Quinn, a GOP consultant and co-author of the California Target Book. "But slowly, that seemed not to be the case."

Pombo crumbled under an avalanche of bad news that crushed his re-election hopes and left his campaign staff frustrated and divided over how to recover.

The national repudiation of President Bush's Iraq war policies and a drumbeat of congressional scandals soured the Tracy Republican's base and galvanized thousands of Bay Area Democrats to march against him.

National environmental groups spent in excess of $1.5 million and more than a year targeting his conservative policies.

And McNerney, a tenacious campaigner, refused to concede ground despite being inexperienced, underfunded and underestimated.

He leveraged the national mood, ran a grass-roots campaign modeled on that of presidential hopeful Howard Dean and transformed his 60,000 vote-loss to Pombo two years ago into a stunning victory that has captured national attention.

"Everywhere I go, people ask me about this race," said Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez. "Why did Pombo lose? Look, politics is about timing and opportunity, and this was the right time, and McNerney was smart to take advantage of the opportunity."

It's impossible, without exit polls, to know whether Republicans simply failed to show up at the polls or whether they voted for McNerney. And it's equally difficult to know whether grass-roots campaigning for McNerney generated the Democrat's win.

"Party registration is valuable, but you have to bear in mind that not all Republicans are the same and you don't know how independents will vote," said UC Berkeley political science professor Bruce Cain. "Pombo's personal issues and the national tide coupled with his strident environmental views lowered his incumbency advantage, and he lost."

Unlike 2004, when Pombo prevailed in each of the district's four counties, McNerney beat the incumbent everywhere except San Joaquin County, where Pombo lives.

But even there, McNerney came within 1 percentage point. Pombo received fewer votes Tuesday than in each of his past three general elections.

"As an old surfer, I would call it a wipe-out rather than a wave," said Rob Caughlan, the chief spokesman for McNerney's campaign. He was also the spokesman in the primary for former GOP Congressman Pete McCloskey, who ran against Pombo. "It was a combination of a lot of things."

The McNerney triumph bears some resemblance to that of Tauscher's historic win a decade ago.

Party leaders didn't think Tauscher could win, either, said Lisa Tucker, the congresswoman's campaign manager at the time.

"Independents in Ellen's district at that time, like Jerry's, were itching for a change, and it had been building for several cycles," Tucker said. "We've seen that happening in District 11, too."

The question now is whether McNerney, who has never held office, can hold onto his seat in 2008.

Turnout is higher in presidential election cycles, which could help a Republican opponent go after him. And McNerney is unlikely to have a half-dozen environmental groups spend millions on his re-election campaign.

McNerney initially was viewed by even members of his own party as too liberal for the Republican district; his voting record in the next two years will test that image.

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