Political road warrior Hannah-Beth Jackson glanced at the splendid morning sky and sea through the front window of Eladio’s, then sighed at the prospect of another campaign day in the age of $4-a-gallon gas. “It kills me-every three days I’m filling up,” she said, sipping a decaf nonfat latte between spoonfuls of oatmeal with blueberries. “And I drive a Prius.”
Mounting a comeback bid, Democrat Jackson, 58, spends considerable time behind the wheel these days, grinding out hundreds of miles a week between her Santa Barbara home and campaign stops in the far-flung suburbs of the 19th State Senate District. Having battled breast cancer into remission last year, she has returned to electoral politics, running in what insiders view as California’s spotlight legislative race to upset Tony Strickland, 38, a former Republican assemblymember from Moorpark, the early favorite to win the open seat.
“This is the single most important race for the state senate, and maybe the Legislature,” said Frank Russo, a former Democratic legislative staffer and lobbyist, who runs the widely respected political Web site californiaprogress
report.com. The contest shapes up as a classic political battle of the sexes, matching the liberal Jackson against the conservative Strickland in an ideological clash featuring stark differences on issues like taxes, schools, and gay marriage. The race has more backstories than a Robert Altman movie, including special interest money, Machiavellian maneuvering over redistricting, and a burgeoning political dynasty in Ventura, where Strickland’s wife, Audra, holds his old Assembly seat.
At a time when partisan control in any of California’s 120 legislative seats rarely changes, the race offers Democrats in the Year of Obama a shot to seize a seat that’s belonged to outgoing GOP senator Tom McClintock. A Jackson win would put them within one vote in the 40-member house of the crucial two-thirds majority needed to pass a budget and other money bills.
The political stakes ensure Jackson-Strickland will be among the state’s most expensive and fiercely fought battles. Both candidates ran unopposed in their primaries, but Strickland says he’s already raised $1 million, even before GOP vice presidential wannabe Mitt Romney’s scheduled appearance at a fundraiser this week. Jackson, who raised $500,000 through the primary, hopes to collect upward of $3 million.
“It’s going to cost a lot,” Strickland told me. “Both parties are going to put money into it.”
The district was drawn to be safe for Republicans during the last round of reapportionment, the eye-glazing but all-important exercise of crafting legislative and congressional maps every 10 years. Previously held by Democrat Jack O’Connell, now state superintendent of schools, the seat’s southern boundary was pushed south, to Santa Clarita in Los Angeles County, to include heavily GOP precincts and protect McClintock. The move hurt Jackson, then looking for a senate district as term limits were forcing her out of the Assembly.
“That reapportionment was an incumbent protection act,” Jackson recalled. “The goal was to keep the number of Democrats and Republicans the same. O’Connell was termed out so his district became expendable.”
While Santa Barbara’s portion of the district votes Democrat, Santa Clarita and the cities of Camarillo, Moorpark, Simi Valley, and Thousand Oaks in Ventura County favor Republicans. McClintock won his last term in 2004 with a comfortable cushion in partisan registration, as GOP voters outnumbered Democrats by 7 percent, according to data from the Secretary of State. But Republican registration has since eroded throughout much of California. Statewide, Democrats now lead in registration, 43.8 to 32.5 percent; in the 19th District, the Republican edge has slipped to just two points.
The first challenge for Jackson, who previously represented Santa Barbara and northern parts of Ventura County, is simply to introduce herself to voters further south. She says that a combination of enthusiasm for Barack Obama’s presidential bid and discontent with conservative GOP policies can give her an upset win in November.
Over breakfast last week, she boiled down the race with Strickland to this: “You can’t have two people with more opposite perspectives.”
Media matters. With most regional and state media MIA, the Ventura County Star’s Timm Herdt has been all over the race. Herdt’s recent scoops include a piece on a $50,000 contribution from the nation’s largest tobacco company to Ventura County’s GOP central committee, solicited by a close ally of Strickland, and another report questioning the Republican candidate’s ballot designation as an “alternative energy executive.”