Friday was a coming-out party of sorts for three potential Republican candidates, all making public appearances in an effort to woo voters and vying for the likely chance to face off against Representative Lois Capps.
It was also a sign that former lieutenant governor Abel Maldonado — despite his longtime roots in the community, potential appeal to Latino voters, and statewide connections and resources — might have a tough battle when the primary rolls around on June 5.
While Tom Watson, who failed in his 2010 quest to unseat the incumbent Capps, squared off against Christopher Mitchum in a debate sponsored by the Santa Barbara Tea Party, Maldonado spoke in front of about 40 people at the Santa Barbara Republican Club earlier that day. He wasn’t at the Tea Party debate and said he hadn’t been invited. “They must have sent the invitation to the wrong address,” he quipped.
That, or it’s a sign of things to come. Maldonado may find support from large groups of conservatives hard to come by. Matt Kokkonen — a San Luis Obispo financial planner who lost badly to Capps in 2008 — launched an email blast to more than 80,000 24th District residents Friday announcing a major campaign to stop Maldonado. He said in the email he is looking for a “Truth Squad” of people to give time and money to expose the “real Abel Maldonado record.” Kokkonen, in an interview, wouldn’t get into specifics about what his group planned to do and also wouldn’t comment on whether he was planning to enter the race.
Kokkonen, who also unsuccessfully ran for State Assembly in 2004 and for San Luis Obispo County Tax Collector in 2006, called Maldonado an “Obama Republican” who has “betrayed his party on a host of issues, from taxes and Proposition 8 to illegal immigration and gun rights.”
Maldonado openly admitted to the 40 or so people at the Republican Club’s monthly luncheon that he’s received “so much heck” for breaking party ranks as a state senator in 2009 to vote for tax increases even though he signed a pledge not to do so. “I voted for California,” he told the crowd. “I didn’t vote for my political career.” He told the group he planned to focus on jobs, stop out-of-control spending, and work on comprehensive immigration reform.
After his speech, Maldonado — the former Santa Maria mayor who lost to Gavin Newsom for lieutenant governor in 2010 — faced a tough interrogation but seemed to quell many of the crowd’s concerns while avoiding specifics on some issues.
Though he should expect a tough battle, Maldonado has several things going for him. For instance, he has been named by the Republican National Congressional Committee as one of its “Young Guns,” part of a drive to elect conservatives to incumbent seats. And political observers have said the race for the 24th congressional seat could be the top state contest to watch, and one of the most important races in the country.
Capps — first elected to Congress in 1998 — didn’t just sit back Friday but flexed a little muscle, announcing that she had brought in $292,425 from 650 donors throughout the last fundraising quarter — her largest quarter for the 2012 election cycle. Capps, who has hired fundraisers, a manager, and a spokesperson, has a total of $859,630 on hand, dwarfing her opponents. Maldonado has $603,768 in cash. That total includes a curious $250,000 loan he made to his campaign on the last day of the reporting period. He also paid off — on the first day of the reporting period — a separate $250,000 loan he had given himself the last day of the last fundraising period.
Watson, who hasn’t officially entered the race — though he is talking and acting like he will — has $9,808 on hand, while Mitchum (son of actor Robert Mitchum) has long-shot $1,400. Both did their best to appeal to more than 100 Tea Partiers at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort on Friday night. Watson called for a robust guest-worker program, while Mitchum said he’d like to see a militarized border. Watson said he was in support of Senator Paul Ryan’s controversial plan for Medicare, and Mitchum said “Obamacare” should be repealed.
The candidates clashed over earmarks. “Earmarks are basically bribes,” said Mitchum. He proposed outlawing them to increase transparency. Watson — to little surprise, given he has asked Capps to help secure special funding on behalf of his company, Agile RF, from the Department of Defense — had no qualms with earmarks that went through the legislative process with transparency. They both viewed current financial regulatory reform, like the Dodd-Frank Act, as a chokehold on economic growth.
After the debate, a straw poll vote was taken. The results showed a tie between the two.
Capps, meanwhile, has been busy pounding the pavement, meeting with constituents and hosting roundtables at businesses throughout the district. Jeff Millman, her campaign spokesperson, said Friday’s debate “shows that the Republican voters have a conflict in choosing the Republican nominee. The debate also shows that the Tea Party is taking a great interest in choosing the Republican nominee, and their extreme agenda will play a significant role in choosing the nominee.”
While Capps looks to be in a strong position as her Republican counterparts work to sort things out, she has more to worry about than she has in recent years. With the district lines recently redrawn as they are every 10 years, Capps and company are now running in a district that includes all of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, along with a small portion of Ventura County. It is nearly identical to the district Capps won twice before, in 1998 and 2000. But while she used to enjoy a double-digit difference in voter registration during the intervening the elections, the new district has only a 3-percent advantage for Dems, according to the Cook Political Report.