The four-way GOP horse race in the 11th Congressional District primary has national congressional analysts hedging their predictions of a likely win by Democratic incumbent Rep. Jerry McNerney in November.
"Unless (the GOP) primary becomes terribly bloody, Republicans should emerge with a very credible nominee, so even though McNerney appears strong, this district bears some watching, especially the way this cycle is shaping up," wrote CQ Politics, part of the venerable Congressional Quarterly.
Voter backlash against the recession, bank bailouts, the mortgage meltdown and health care reform legislation has political experts predicting that Democrats could lose dozens of seats in the House and Senate — perhaps even majority control. To retake the majority, Republicans would need to gain at least 36 seats in the House of Representatives and eight in the Senate.
On paper, the 11th District is the most competitive in California.
Republicans hold a minuscule registration lead, about one-fifth of 1 percentage point. The slight margin is nearly a 7-point leftward shift since McNerney's 2006 victory against former GOP Rep. Richard Pombo.
McNerney, who is unopposed in the primary, rode into office with the help of national environmental groups, who spent millions targeting Pombo, then the chairman of the House Resources Committee. McNerney, the wind turbine engineer from Pleasanton, continued to have the wind at his back in 2008, when voters in this Republican-leaning district chose Democrat Barack Obama over Republican John McCain, 54 percent to 44 percent.
For most of his two terms, McNerney has largely stayed under the radar. City and county elected officials praise him as accessible and responsive. He has focused heavily on popular veterans issues, and obtained $200,000 in federal money for the redevelopment of the Danville Veterans Memorial Building.
The nonpartisan National Journal even rated McNerney as California's most moderate Democratic congressman, based on his 2009 voting record. The ranking may temper partisan rhetoric, which paints him as a puppet of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Each of the four 11th District GOP primary challengers claims to have the best chance to move the district into their party's column. They laugh at the idea of McNerney as a moderate, lambasting him for his votes in favor of health care reform legislation, the bank bailout and cap-and-trade environmental legislation.
But Republicans have a classic problem: How to win in a GOP primary dominated by conservative voters and appeal to moderates and independents in the general election. With party registration so close, the winner in November will need to lure a substantial number of independent voters, which comprise 17 percent of the district.
The largely unknown Republicans differ little on bedrock conservative issues: They have all pledged to pursue tax cuts, smaller government, tighter border controls, expanded domestic oil drilling and the repeal of health care legislation. But they vary widely on style and experience.
The son of Mexican immigrants, retired U.S. Marshal Tony Amador has spent his career in law enforcement and state government. He predicts moderate and conservative Latino voters will propel him to victory. His challengers, however, call him an opportunist who moved from Sacramento to Lodi last summer specifically to run for the seat.
Brad Goehring is a fourth-generation Lodi-area grape grower who runs an agricultural labor contracting business that plants orchards and vineyards. He ran afoul of federal regulators in 2004 after his firm converted pasture into vineyards. He was cleared of wrongdoing but subsequently became a national spokesman in the fight against proposed regulatory expansion of government jurisdiction over water.
Goehring has deep San Joaquin County ties but his affiliation with the agricultural community may not be enough in an increasingly urbanized district no longer dominated by farmers and ranchers.
On the Bay Area side, Elizabeth Emken, of Danville, may be the Democrats' biggest worry. A former finance manager at IBM who has spent the past decade lobbying in Washington, D.C., for improved research and treatment for autistic children, Emken is an alternative in an otherwise male field.
The other East Bay-based candidate, attorney and former congressional staff member David Harmer, of Dougherty Valley, has just come from a surprisingly strong, albeit unsuccessful, campaign last year in the 10th District. He lost to former California Lt. Gov. John Garamendi.
Harmer's detractors say his loss last year, coupled with his failed 1996 congressional bid in Utah, will prove easy fodder for Democrats who will portray him as a man looking for a job. His candidacy is further complicated by the fact that he does not live in the 11th District.
That might pass unnoticed if not for the fact that Harmer hammered Garamendi, who also does not live in his district, as a carpetbagger.
Occupation/background: U.S. representative; defeated seven-term GOP incumbent Richard Pombo, of Tracy, in a major 2006 upset as Democrats took control of the House of Representatives. Sandia National Laboratories national security contractor; engineer, energy consultant and CEO of wind turbine manufacturer.
Occupation/background: Retired U.S. marshal, a post to which he was appointed in 2002 by President George W. Bush; former Los Angeles Police Department patrol officer; former director of the California Youth Authority and deputy director of the California Employment Development Department.
Occupation/background: Former vice president of governmental relations at Autism Speaks, and a financial manager for IBM Corp.; as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., she helped increase federal funding for autism research by $200 million over five years and led a multistate drive to increase access to insurance coverage for autism treatment. Appointed by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to the Governor's Task Force on Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Occupation/background: Owner and operator of Goehring Vineyards Inc.; fourth-generation San Joaquin Valley farmer; national spokesman for the California Farm Bureau's opposition to proposed regulatory expansion of the federal government's jurisdiction in the Clean Water Act; champion skier in college.
Hometown: San Ramon
Occupation/background: Attorney; ran unsuccessfully for Congress twice, first in Utah in 1996 and last year in the neighboring 10th Congressional District. Former first vice president and assistant general counsel in credit card division at Providian; attorney in Utah and Los Angeles; fellow at College of Public Interest Law at the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento; minority counsel to a Senate Judicial Committee subcommittee.
Occupation/background: Electrician; ran in 2008 general election as a write-in 11th district candidate; joined the American Independent Party in 2006; former Silicon Valley software engineer
ON THE BALLOT DEMOCRAT: Jerry McNerney, 58, Pleasanton, U.S. representative, engineer, energy consultant and CEO of wind turbine manufacturer, www.jerrymcnerney.org REPUBLICAN: Antonio Amador, 66, Lodi, retired U.S. marshal, former police officer, former director of the California Youth Authority, www.amadorforcongress.com; Elizabeth Emken, 47, Danville, former vice president of governmental relations at Autism Speaks and a former financial manager, http://emken2010.com; Brad Goehring, 45, Clements, vineyard owner and operator, farmer, http://goehringforcongress.com; David Harmer, 47, San Ramon, attorney, http://harmerforcongress.com AMERICAN INDEPENDENT: David Christensen, Tracy, electrician, former Silicon Valley software engineer, http://constitutionpartyca.org/node/503