Democrat Holds Harman Seat

Republicans thought they had a shot in California’s special election but fell short. Eleanor Clift on why Janice Hahn won.

07.13.11 1:42 PM ET

In easily winning a special election in California’s 36th district on Tuesday, Democrat Janice Hahn dashed Republican hopes that the poor economy could propel a Tea Party–backed candidate to victory.

Democrats hold an 18-point advantage among registered voters in the district, which stretches along the coast from the Port of Los Angeles to Venice Beach and is home to many defense and aerospace contractors. A Republican win was unlikely, but businessman Craig Huey thought he could defy conventional wisdom in a low-turnout election by getting his fervent supporters to the polls. In the end, after a race that turned increasingly nasty and personal, Hahn, the sister of former mayor James Hahn, won with 55 percent of the vote compared with Huey’s 45 percent. 

Democrats were relieved to hold the district, which was represented through 10 sometimes difficult elections by Jane Harman, who stepped down in November to take the helm of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. (Harman also serves on the board of the Newsweek Daily Beast Co., which is half-owned by her family.)

While Republicans took the loss, analysts agreed that the results did not signal any national trend but were further evidence that a candidate like Huey, who takes very conservative positions on social issues, is not going to fare well in a district where a majority of the voters hold more liberal views. 

The race centered on economic issues, foreshadowing the elections next year, with the two candidates taking the standard positions of their respective parties. Hahn campaigned on more federal funding for clean energy and job training for laid-off workers, and Huey championed smaller government, less federal regulation, and said he would not raise taxes. But more peripheral and more emotional issues drove the race in the final days. Huey assailed Hahn for supporting a program that used taxpayer money to pay former gang members to work with at-risk youth. An outside group produced an ad supporting Huey that was so abhorrent in its racial innuendo that local television stations refused to run it. Both candidates denounced the ad, but everybody talked about it and a new low standard had been set.

Hahn and Huey were the first products of California’s new open-primary system, just put into place and which lists all candidates on one ballot. The top two finishers, regardless of party affiliation and assuming no one wins a majority, advance to a runoff. The 59-year-old Hahn, a Los Angeles city councilwoman, and the 61-year-old Huey, who owns a direct-mail-advertising company, came in first and second in a field of 16 candidates that included five Democrats, six Republicans, three Independents, a Libertarian, and a member of the Peace and Freedom Party. 

The open-primary system has been touted as a way to ensure more moderate candidates, but the issue profiles of Hahn and Huey read almost like a caricature of the left and right wings of their respective parties. In its endorsement of Hahn in the primary, the Los Angeles Times said she “votes in lockstep with labor…is a stalwart environmentalist…an ardent advocate for the poor…and a forceful fighter for jobs.” For critics of her consistently liberal positions, Hahn’s advocacy on behalf of a 7-foot alligator that had been abandoned in a local lake became a source of some amusement.

Huey, on the other hand, had no public record to mock or criticize. He is a successful entrepreneur who publishes online voter guides for Christians, and whose rightward orientation made him ideal for the Tea Party.

Harman, who occupied the seat from 1993 to 1999, and again from 2000 to 2010, was known for her muscular views on foreign policy and her fiscal conservatism. She was a member of the Blue Dog caucus, centrist Democrats whose numbers were depleted in the last election.