For one of the first times this century, the congressional race to represent the Central Coast might be just that — a race. During the first decade of the 2000s, the district was so gerrymandered that Democrats had about 22 percent more registered voters than Republicans did; it was dubbed the “Ribbon of Shame,” a narrow strip that stretched along the coast from Oxnard to Monterey. But since California redrew its congressional map a few years ago, the Dems now make up 37.5 percent of voters, just 3.4 percent more than Republicans. The rule of thumb is that a party needs a 5 percent or more advantage to be safe in an election.
Distinctive this year is that it’s a midterm election, and with a lackluster gubernatorial race, voter turnout is expected to be low. That’s cause for concern for Representative Lois Capps, an unwavering Democrat who has represented the region since 1998. A longtime Santa Barbara resident and former school nurse, Capps won a special election after her husband, Walter Capps, suddenly died while in office. She defended her seat in a general election later that year and has been jetting to and from D.C. ever since.
In her eight victories, just three were considered competitive, based largely on the district’s demographics. Even so, in 2012, she crushed her Republican challenger Abel Maldonado — former lieutenant governor and Santa Maria mayor — by 9 percentage points.
This time around, Capps is challenged by Republican Chris Mitchum, a firm conservative who is backed by the Tea Party, a label Capps has highlighted. Mitchum has distanced himself from the Tea Party, contending that it is not a national organization but actually 3,000 different grassroots groups in the country. “I am a constitutional republican,” Mitchum said, clarifying he was referring to the “republic,” not the Republican Party. The Tea Party Express, a California activist group and political action committee, endorsed Mitchum this week.
Mitchum is perhaps best known for his acting career and his movie-star father, Robert Mitchum. The younger Mitchum appeared in a number of Westerns, including Rio Lobo and Chisum. Following in the footsteps of actors who jump into Republican politics, Mitchum ran a tight race for the State Assembly in 1998. He ran for the House in 2012 but lost in the primaries to Maldonado, who was criticized for voting with the Democrats in 2009 to implement the biggest tax hike in the state’s history.
“The party was not willing to unite behind Abel,” said GOP chapter chair Gregory Gandrud, but he claimed this race has been a “complete 180.” Others have seriously questioned the degree to which Mitchum will be able to attract moderate voters or those who declined to state a party preference, which makes up about 23 percent of voters in the district.
A week before the election, Republicans have a 3 percent lead over Democrats in voters who have already cast their ballot by mail. Recent polling released by Mitchum, from the GOP polling firm Probolsky Research, indicates he leads the race by about one percentage point with a 4.9 percent margin of error. Capps does not release her polling data, though she said it’s going to be close.
Most critical may be San Luis Obispo residents, who comprise 43 percent of registered voters in the 24th District, with Dems making up 33 percent of the electorate to Republicans’ 39 percent. Twenty-one percent indicated no party preference. Perhaps that’s why both candidates spent time at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo last Friday — Capps at a talk with former White House press secretary Mike McCurry and Mitchum at a fraternity house barbecue.
On Monday, Mitchum was endorsed by House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy (who is from Kern County) at an event held at the Fess Parker DoubleTree attended by several dozen people, including Santa Barbara City Councilmember Dale Francisco and County Supervisor Peter Adam. McCarthy and Mitchum then moved on to attend a fundraising lunch in Montecito.
Santa Barbara County, which makes up 55 percent of the 24th, has 11 percent more registered Democrats than Republicans. The district includes all of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties and roughly 5,700 voters in Ventura.
In fundraising, Capps, with $2 million in the bank, has outpaced Mitchum, who has just under $400,000. The difference is even more pronounced considering that more than $200,000 in Mitchum’s campaign piggy bank came from his own pocket.
Even before Mitchum won the Republican primary, Capps lit up the airwaves with television ads attacking him, contending he is an extreme Tea Partier who wants to abolish Social Security and Medicare. Mitchum, in turn, argued people are tired of negative advertisements, though he has consistently bashed Capps on Twitter, claiming she has done nothing in 16 years and almost always voted with Nancy Pelosi — creating the hashtag “PelosiPooch.” The two candidates have not publicly debated, though they disagree on perhaps every issue.
As for energy, Mitchum said drilling for oil is good for the economy and the ecology, pointing to low unemployment in North Dakota due to the state’s oil boom. He further contended drilling takes the pressure off of natural oil seepage. “Each year, we re-create the  oil spill,” he said. “Year after year.” Regardless of the damage produced by the spill, Mitchum argued we haven’t had an accident since 1969. “Wouldn’t you think we’ve figured out how to do it right?”
Capps, on the other hand, has consistently voted against oil drilling. When Republicans have introduced bills to expand offshore drilling — including off Santa Barbara’s coastline — Capps has offered amendments to study the impacts of drilling on the marine environments and to make the regulatory agencies more transparent. Such Republican bills have been proposed in the House each year since 2011, but none has passed the Senate.
Capps has not taken an official position on the county fracking and acidizing ban, or Measure P, calling it a “local issue,” but she said she is concerned about the impacts of fracking, particularly on the groundwater, on a federal level. Mitchum contended unconventional drilling occurs too far below the groundwater basin to be problematic. While Measure P has ignited progressives, it has also united conservatives and could motivate them to vote.
Concerns about greenhouse-gas emissions that are produced by cyclic steam injection have emerged because of Measure P. When asked about his stance on climate change, Mitchum said the climate is changing constantly and that we are going into another ice age. “To me it’s arrogant to say that mankind has influence over weather,” he added. “One volcano eruption puts more crap into the air than mankind does in a year … To talk about this being our fault, I seriously question that.”
Conversely, Capps has called climate change “one of the most serious environmental and economic challenges we face as a nation.” Capps has three bills in the pipeline to address it, including grant funds for coastal regions and money to prepare for changes such as modernizing water infrastructure.
Mitchum is a strong advocate for state’s rights. He argued that universities, with their large endowments, should pick up the tab for students’ tuition. Then the Department of Education, which he argued has no constitutional foundation, should be eliminated. Capps disagrees. Of the $15 billion that the federal department gives to California each year, half goes to the federal student loan program. The other half provides for Pell Grants, special education monies, Title I grants, and others.
The list of differences goes on. Social Security? Capps wants to protect it from budget cuts. Mitchum calls for a quasi-privatized model in which young people could have the option of opening a private account. Immigration? Capps, should she return to Washington, hopes to work on comprehensive immigration reform in the lame-duck session. Mitchum argues we have zero border protection, worse than in 1986 when the Immigration Reform and Control Act was passed. The Affordable Care Act? Capps supports it. Mitchum argues it must be repealed.
“Voters have a really clear choice,” Capps said. “We have such different priorities.” The media highlights that this Congress has been one of the least productive. “It’s not broken; it’s constipated,” said Mitchum, blaming Senate Majority leader Harry Reid for blocking bills. “The House is doing its job; when they go to the Senate, they hit a stone wall.” Capps acknowledged the “partisan atmosphere” but was proud of the fact that of the 53 bills that were signed into law, three were hers, including provisions to the bipartisan Farm Bill that strengthened organic labeling standards and the HIV Organ Policy Equity Act, which allows for research for organ transplants for people with HIV.