In the strange world of politics, where up is down and down is up, Republicans tout as a victory David Harmer's 10-point loss to Democrat John Garamendi in Tuesday's special congressional race.

With an 18-point party registration advantage, off-the-charts name identification and double the cash of his opponent, Republicans say Garamendi should have won with a far bigger margin.

"Harmer winning 43 percent of the vote in an overwhelmingly Democratic district in the Bay Area does not speak well for the Democrats," California GOP Chairman Ron Nehring said the morning after Tuesday's election.

Yes, this is largely spin.

Harmer outperformed most of the previous Republican challengers in District 10 for several reasons unrelated to sour sentiment over Democratic policies.

For one, low-turnout special elections typically skew toward Republicans because they vote in higher percentages than Democrats. Political experts say such elections involve too few voters to serve as useful harbingers.

It was also an open seat. The presence of an incumbent usually discourages opposition.

The former District 10 representative, Ellen Tauscher, never had a serious primary challenge. And she had only nominal Republican opposition since 2002, when the new 10th District boundaries put the seat into safe Democratic territory.


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Tauscher easily won re-election in the past four general elections with no less than two-thirds of the vote and margins of victory of at least 33 percentage points, a spread well in excess of the 18-point Democratic Party registration advantage.

But Harmer undeniably eclipsed the Republicans who ran against Tauscher.

Though Harmer finished far behind Garamendi in votes cast by mail, he almost won among voters who went to the polls on Election Day in Contra Costa County, where two-thirds of the district's voters live. And he beat Garamendi by 1,000 votes in the Alameda County portion of the district, which is chiefly Livermore.

Harmer's late surge came after the National Republican Congressional Committee dumped five anti-Garamendi mailers into the district.

Harmer's supporters billed the national party's investment as evidence of their candidate's real chances of victory in the face of growing public anger over unemployment, taxes, the recession and health care reform.

But the NRCC could not seriously have expected an upset of such magnitude. Its involvement appeared designed to generate media buzz for the party rather than votes for Harmer.

The cash came too late to be of much help to Harmer, who lost heavily among the votes cast by mail.

And the GOP sent a good many of the anti-tax and anti-Nancy Pelosi-themed mailers into Democratic households, whose voters were unlikely sympathizers.

"We are a two-Democrat household and we got more mailers from Harmer and the GOP than we did Garamendi," one voter told me.

If media attention is what the NRCC wanted, it got it. Unable to resist the lure of a David vs. Garamendi story, the national press hinted at trouble in true blue California.

The unusually high volume of Republican volunteers and dollars poured into the noncompetitive District 10 campaign does offer a window into what former state GOP communications director Patrick Dorinson loosely calls the Internet Party.

Its members are savvy voters without strong party ties who make regular use of the Web to learn about issues and to call others to action.

The media mistakenly, he says, portrays the movement as limited to right-wing tea party activists, those angry, yelling "Taxed Enough Already" protesters who have taken to the streets in opposition to President Barack Obama's policies.

"It is the modern technological equivalent of Paul Revere," said Dorinson, who writes the Libertarian Cowboy blog. "These people don't care about party activities like golf tournaments or shilly-shallying around to social events. The revolution is in full swing and it will manifest itself in next year's elections all over the country."

In the Bay Area, that means District 11 held by Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, who will seek re-election to a third term, and Assembly District 15, won by Democrat Joan Buchanan in 2008.

Party registration is close in both districts and Republicans are expected to pull out all the stops to reclaim those seats.

Harmer's relatively strong showing in District 10 may have finished in the loss column but it will undoubtedly energize his neighboring Republican campaigns next year.

Reach Lisa Vorderbrueggen at lvorderbrueggen@bayareanewsgroup.com or 925-945-4773 or www.ibabuzz.com/politics.