Munching hors d’oeuvres at a long-ago campaign fundraiser, a ranking member of the California press corps memorably disclosed to a greenhorn newsman the top two rules of political reporting:
“The conventional wisdom is always wrong,” he said. “And never pass up a chance to eat or take a piss.”
Putting rule #2 aside for another day, his #1 recommendation, to distrust prevailing thinking about political races, pertains in assessing the contest for the 24th Congressional District seat, three weeks before the June 7 primary, when the top two finishers will advance to a November 8 runoff. While much breathless punditry has aimed at the campaign (we name no names), there has been a paucity of, um, Actual Facts in the form of independent polling.
Based on recent public statements and debate performances, along with examination of campaign fundraising and TV and online ads of the nine candidates seeking to replace retiring Rep. Lois Capps, however, here is a look at some key factors and scenarios:
WHAT HAS BERNIE WROUGHT? There are about 350,000 registered voters in the district, which includes San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and a tiny sliver of Ventura counties. Although Democrat Capps has been elected to nine terms, her party holds only a narrow 38-34 percent registration edge over the Republicans, while decline-to-state independents represent 23 percent of the electorate and minor parties the balance.
Historically, Republicans turn out more reliably in primaries, perhaps enough to offset the Democrats’ slight registration advantage; combined with the large number of nonpartisans, this helps explains why the leading candidates emphasize clichéd claims to be “bipartisan” “problem solvers” capable of “reaching across the aisle.”
In a volatile campaign year shaped by the singular presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, however, it is unclear how much such traditional trends will matter. Trump has helped boost GOP turnout in other states, but the Republican race is now settled; liberal Bernie Sanders meanwhile keeps campaigning vigorously against likely nominee Hillary Clinton, which could flip conventional wisdom and boost Democratic turnout.
THE UN-UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: Many political junkies believe that Republican Assemblymember Katcho Achadjian and Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal, both of whom hew to the political middle, will be the two leading finishers. Achadjian has been elected for nearly 20 years to various offices in S.L.O., where Republicans hold a five-point registration advantage over the Democrats and where he enjoys high name recognition. Carbajal’s strength owes to his prodigious fundraising, which enables him to broadcast an ongoing barrage of ads touting his background and experience. However …
KEEP AN EYE ON JUSTIN: While the front-runners run as pragmatic centrists, 27-year-old Justin Fareed makes a generational appeal, wrapping Republican orthodoxy on taxes and regulation into the argument that he is best positioned to take a long-range view of political problems. Scion of a wealthy family, he has raised almost as much as Carbajal, and GOP ad guru Fred Davis has produced for him the campaign’s most eye-catching spots. But Fareed showed his age when he snapped at the moderator in the KCRW-Independent debate, where he also was booed for ducking the question about whether he supports Trump.
WHAT DO WOMEN WANT? In debate stage lineups of all nine candidates, there is exactly one, count ’em, one, woman among all the fellas in red ties. S.B. Mayor Helene Schneider has said that as the only woman in the race, in the year of Hillary, she most effectively can argue for equal pay, abortion rights, and other women’s health issues. But Carbajal’s superior campaign organization has denied her endorsements of key local Democratic women’s groups; whether ordinary voters care about that as much as insiders will determine whether Schneider pulls off an upset finish.
THE OSTRANDER FACTOR: Democrat Bill Ostrander, a S.L.O. rancher and former actor, has made the sharpest impression in recent debates, arguing forcefully for campaign finance reform. Unlikely to prevail in the primary, his association with the Bernie Sanders crusade nonetheless suggests he may pull progressive votes from Carbajal or Schneider, both running as centrists. Similarly, right-wing Republican Matt Kokkonen, who aligns himself with Trump on immigration, might attract enough conservatives on the margins.
ALSO IN THE MIX: Little-known Democrat Ben Lucas proposes building a pipeline from Lake Superior to the West to ease the drought. Hoping to win notice from the one-quarter of nonpartisan voters are decline-to-staters John Uebersax, who fiercely opposes U.S. military adventurism, and Steve Isakson, an engineer who says that like Albert Einstein, he thinks of conventional issues in an unconventional way.
Don’t forget to vote.