Valley Observer: Campaigning Already?

Earlier-than-ever presidential campaigning has a local effect

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If you thrill to announcements of presidential candidacies, then this has been the spring for you. In both parties, they’ve been coming out in droves, massaging their perceived power bases, pandering to the national media, and of course vice versa. There are exceptions, to be sure — such as those Democrats who will have nothing to do with Fox News, and The New York Times, which seeks to kneecap every Republican as a matter of corporate policy.

Politicians and journalists are bound by mutual loathing and mutual need — and in about equal parts. Each would shrivel without the other and knows it. They are all simply playing the latest version of America’s quadrennial games, whereby the next presidential race begins the day after the last one ends and kicks into high gear at least two years before the actual election. That’s much too long, and we will never concede it isn’t. However, we do understand why modern presidential candidacies must be announced early, if only to raise the horrendous funds needed to mount a credible campaign.

But has this extension of campaigns cloned itself at the local level? It’s no longer only a matter of Clinton, Giuliani, Obama, McCain, and the rest bellying up to the bar, as it were, in their thirst for the presidency. Oh no, much the same has been happening since last fall in the still-distant contests for local legislative seats.

The valley has four, three of which will be wide open come November 2008. Voter-mandated term limits will see to that. Of course, a proposed term-altering ballot measure in next February’s earliest-ever California presidential primary would change things if it passes. We’ll cross that unlikely bridge if we come to it. But until then, we presume that legislators Bonnie Garcia and John Benoit — Republican incumbents of the 80th and 64th Assembly Districts, respectively — will exit in 2008, as will 37th Senatorial District Republican Jim Battin. In the fourth valley legislative seat, the 40th Senatorial, Democrat Denise Ducheny was easily re-elected last November, and her final term will not run out until 2010.

Although next year’s nonpresidential June primaries are a full 12 months away and the general election is another five months beyond that, potential candidates are drooling for the chance to run and are eager for the world to know it. Since January, candidates have fallen over themselves to file statements of intention to run, thus enabling them to troll for support and, specifically, for money. No doubt more are still to come. But predictably, most of the action is happening in only one political party per district. The reason is obvious: Whoever wins the majority party primary in that district is an all-but-
certain victor in the November runoff.

Take Jim Battin’s 37th state Senate District, comprising most of the Coachella Valley and stretching west to include the San Jacinto Valley and Winchester. The latest available registration figures (February) provided by California’s secretary of state show the 37th to be heavily Republican, with the party holding more than an 11-point registration plurality. Similarly, John Benoit’s 64th Assembly District — basically Riverside and Temecula attached by a gerrymandering genius via a long, skinny hook to Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, and Bermuda Dunes — reveals a full 12-point Republican spread. Needless to say, both seats are drawing multiple GOP candidates, among them termed-out Assemblyman Benoit himself, who would like to change legislative houses by succeeding termed-out Sen. Battin. So far there is nary a peep from Democratic candidates.

On the other hand, Democrats are hungry to capture Republican Bonnie Garcia’s 80th Assembly District — which takes in that part of the valley not in the 64th, plus all of Imperial County — when she is termed out next year. And well they should be. The 80th is one of the very few Inland Empire legislative or congressional districts with a registered Democratic plurality, in this case about eight points. As we write, three Democrats, but only one Republican, have declared their candidacy, with perhaps more in the offing. Whoever the eventual Democratic nominee is, the odds favor his winning this seat from the Grand Old Party, unless he turns out to be as inept a candidate as were his three predecessors.

At least Sen. Denise Ducheny’s successor won’t have that worry when she leaves Sacramento in 2010. Her tortuously designed 40th state Senate District — winding east from the Pacific Ocean along San Diego County’s Mexican border, then north and finally west to encompass all of Imperial County and our valley cities of Coachella, Indio, and Cathedral City (make sense of that if you can!) — is Democratic by a 13-point margin. In this district, diversity means inviting a Republican to lunch.
But what about the Coachella Valley’s lone congressional seat? So far there is no knowing who will confront long-serving Republican Congresswoman Mary Bono next year. She’ll have no challenger in the 45th Congressional District primary, that’s for sure, but which daring Democrat will take her on? Will it be La Quinta resident David Roth, her opponent last November, who is said to be considering a rerun? He lost by 21.4 points in ’06 — very creditable when compared to the congresswoman’s 30-point victory spreads in 2002 and 2004 and almost equaling current Palm Springs Mayor Ron Oden’s 21.2-point loss to Ms. Bono in 2000.

Yet barring an electoral tsunami, Mr. Roth’s or any other Democrat’s chances of cracking 40 percent of the vote in 2008, against Congresswoman Bono’s standard 60 percent-plus seem remote at best. Faced with at least a 20-point gap to close, no Democrat will win that congressional seat in the foreseeable future, just as no Republican will capture Ms. Ducheny’s 40th Senate District.

To conclude this brief essay in statistics, we note that Republican and Democratic official voter registrations continue to slide as percentages of the whole, although very slowly. In all five valley legislative/congressional districts discussed here, for instance, both parties are down between one and two points from their 2004 general-election counts, just as “decline-to-state” registrations are ahead by about the same percentages.

But even though the relative numbers of Independents are inching up here as elsewhere, they still constitute less than 16 percent of all Riverside County’s registered voters, while 45.5 percent and 34.5 percent, respectively, call themselves Republicans or Democrats. In time, a third party may have a sporting chance, but that time won’t be soon.

The opinions expressed in the Valley Observer are those of Hank Stokes. He can be reached in care of Palm Springs Life.
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