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Democrats put Pombo on their list
Longtime GOP congressman may face tough race next year

Edward Epstein, Chronicle Washington Bureau

Saturday, June 4, 2005


Washington -- Democratic leaders, looking for districts they think they can win in 2006 to regain control of the House after a dozen years, are eyeing the seat of the lone Republican in the Democratic-dominated Bay Area -- powerful Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy.

Pombo, a rancher first elected in 1992 whose district straddles the Altamont Pass, was one of 12 Republican House members targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee over the Memorial Day weekend with radio ads. In the ads, they were attacked for their recent vote against the Democrats' proposal to extend medical coverage for National Guardsmen and reservists returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In addition, the campaign committee -- the Democratic Party's main vehicle for raising money for House seats and recruiting viable candidates -- has started issuing regular news releases assailing Pombo for a variety of actions, including his $5,000 in donations to the defense fund of embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

Such Democratic moves, along with talk that state Sen. Mike Machado, D- Linden (San Joaquin County), is considering a run against Pombo, show the Democrats are intent, for now, on mounting their most serious challenge to the congressman since his first, close win in 1992 over Democrat Patti Garamendi, the wife of state Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi.

Such a challenge to an incumbent would be a novelty in California in this decade, since the adoption after the 2000 census of a redistricting map for the state's 53 House districts that protected the partisan balance in the state delegation at 33 Democrats and 20 Republicans.

Fueled by polls showing sagging ratings for the Republican-controlled Congress and public unease over such issues as President Bush's plan to vastly change Social Security, the Democrats are taking an aggressive approach in the upcoming election cycle. With the death on New Year's Day of her 2004 campaign chairman, Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Sacramento, Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco named Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., as his successor.

Pelosi will become speaker of the House if Emanuel's efforts can erase the GOP's 29-seat House majority in 2006. Most analysts believe it's a longshot for Democrats to gain such an edge during the midterm election.

Emanuel, a top White House aide under President Bill Clinton, is trying to expand the number of competitive seats for 2006 beyond the three dozen or so that are expected to be close in a nation of increasingly lopsided House districts. That led the Democrats to Pombo.

"We think he's somebody who's going to have a problem next November,'' said Bill Burton, spokesman for the Democratic committee. "With the right candidate with a profile in the district, he could have a tough race.''

"We keep coming back to Pombo because there's a real hunger there for someone to represent the district,'' added Burton. The Y-shaped district stretches from San Joaquin County into portions of Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties. It goes from Lodi to Morgan Hill.

If election results are any guide, Pombo wouldn't seem to have much to fear. His victories have generally been in the 60 percent range, varying little since 1994, even as suburban tract housing has replaced more of the farm and ranching communities that are his natural base.

Wayne Johnson, Pombo's political consultant, shrugged off the Democrats' interest in Pombo's seat. "Their job is to recruit candidates, and this is a way to do it,'' he said.

Pombo, who chairs the House Resources Committee, is a strong GOP fund- raiser, based on his advocacy of property owners' rights and his criticism of the Endangered Species Act, which he calls a runaway train that values preservation of animal and vegetation species habitats over people. To limit his fund raising for other Republicans, the Democrats want to force him into a high-profile race at home, Johnson said.

"They want to tie Pombo down. So they recruit someone who's already been elected'' in the same area, he said.

By mounting a high-profile race against Pombo, the Democrats might be able to tap into increased contributions from the congressman's longtime foes, especially environmentalists, who would like to see him defeated.

Machado, a farmer, won re-election to the state Senate in November in a tough, expensive race against Stockton Mayor Gary Podesto. Machado spent about $4 million and won 53 percent of the vote.

"Machado did not exactly light up the sky in his last race,'' Johnson said.

Democrats counter that Machado showed his strength by defeating a well- financed Republican who had the backing of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Jerry McNerney, the 2004 Democratic candidate against Pombo, is also considering running again, Democratic state chairman Art Torres said.

"There is a real potential in the red areas of California, which I consider Pombo's district to be, in terms of Democratic activity,'' Torres said.

But an independent analyst said the Democrats face an uphill fight in ousting Pombo. "Nothing suggests his district is trending more Democratic,'' said Amy Walter, who follows House races nationwide for the Cook Political Report.

Pombo's 61 percent of the vote in 2004 was nine percentage points better than Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts did in the district in his race against Bush.

"This begs the question of why they would target Pombo. I don't think they have an answer. Their theory must be to start sowing the seeds for the future by making Pombo out to be a conservative who is out of touch with suburban voters,'' Walter said.

Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which oversees the House GOP campaign, said he was puzzled by the Democrats' decision to target Pombo.

"It baffles me why they are wasting money out there 17 months out from the election. But they need a candidate, and that candidate has to raise money, '' Forti said. "If the Democrats want to waste their money trying to unseat an incumbent, they should go ahead,'' he said.

Walter said Democrats are searching for a winning candidate like Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek. Tauscher has proven consistently electable in an East Bay district with suburban and rural areas. "They view Tauscher as an example of a moderate Democrat who can appeal to suburbanites,'' Walter said.

E-mail Edward Epstein at eepstein@sfchronicle.com.





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