April 26, 2012 | In his last seven congressional races, Rep. Pete Stark has garnered over 70 percent of the vote in every case. His challenger Eric Swalwell is hoping to limit the 40-year congressman to a figure in the low-50s, according to a report on the Washington web site, Talking Points Memo.

“This is a Congressman who has routinely received more than 75 percent of the vote in each election, on autopilot,” said Lisa Tucker, Swalwell’s campaign spokesman. “We need to hold him to the low 50’s. And then I think we get that second shot in November. And if we do that, I think we have a great shot at defeating him, because we get a second shot, back to back.”

The strategy of siphoning over nearly 20 points from Stark in a three-person primary featuring two Democrats and a little-known conservative independent is quite an ambitious baseline for a first-term and unknown councilman from Dublin. Nevertheless, it admits defeat without the normal ramifications associated with losing, like losing. With the first use of the state’s “top two” open primary system, finishing second is almost as good as winning in June. Instead, the real benchmark will be how close the runner-up finishes in the primary.

“My strategy is also for Eric not to win,” said Chris Pareja with a smirk. Pareja is the conservative-leaning independent also in the race. “I’m not hoping for Pete to get 52 percent because I would like to see him number two.”

In 2010, voters approved Proposition 14, which allows voters the opportunity to support candidates regardless of party affiliation. The top two vote-getter advance to the November general election regardless if, as in this race, both are potentially from the same party. However, if the basis for the referendum was to encourage the election of more moderate state and federal legislators, the phenomenon has been absent in the race for the new 15th congressional district.

Stark has continued to trumpet traditional progressive touchstones such as health care reform, ending U.S. military intervention abroad and support of labor unions. While Swalwell, too, has rolled out liberal orthodoxy, his brand has been hard to define and short on specifics. Similarly, Pareja’s brand of independence also eschews the middle and tacks right on most issues that normally provide music to the ears of frequent listeners of  conservative talk radio. So far, it has been Pareja who is attempting to push Swalwell to the far left and clumping him in with Stark’s brand of liberalism.

“Democrats want a reason to like Eric because he’s not Pete,” said Pareja. “I would modify that and ask where are these fresh, new ideas Eric is always talking about?” Pareja also said Swalwell’s recently added list of platform positions to his campaign web site is the almost identical to Stark’s positions. “Eric needs to stop beating on Pete and start focusing on the issues,” he added.

Although, Stark’s recently inflammatory charge of bribery leveled against Swalwell this month and the subsequent mea culpa, made headlines outside of the district, it also overshadowed a very negative campaign by Swalwell focusing on Stark’s residence and family life along with criticisms of Stark’s visible health. The latter leading some to say it smacks of blatant ageism. To make his point, Swalwell frequently uses the line, “out of step, out of touch and out of sight” to more than hint at his 80-year-old opponent’s health.

Before you attach much sympathy to the less ambulatory Stark, recall his non-apology last week for charging Swalwell accepted bribes from a Dublin real estate developer in return for favorable rezoning considerations. The recalibrated hit that followed basically swept the charge to the forefront without the mention of alleged criminal enterprise. “I misspoke the other evening when I made allegations against my opponent for taking bribes, and for that I apologize,” said Stark, before adding.

“Eric Swalwell has been a consistent vote on the Dublin City Council and on the Planning Commission supporting projects by developers who have been raided by the FBI, have pleaded guilty to destroying natural habitats, and has taken numerous contributions to fund his campaign which he consistently utilizes with negative attacks.”

After Stark’s recent kerfuffle, you might expect his campaign handlers to keep a muzzle on him until after the June 5 primary. But, it remains to be seen whether Swalwell’s campaign, so predicated thus far on painting Stark as crazed and reacting forcefully to his misstep, is enough to put him within striking distance, let alone a very rosy strategy of limiting the damage to a Stark victory in the low-50s.