Stark Wins In CD15, But Poor Showing Sets Up A Divisive Race For Democrats

ELECTION ’12//CONGRESS 15 ANALYSIS
June 6, 2012 | Nothing dampers a mood better than a win somehow morphing into a Phyrric victory. It’s exactly what happened to 40-year congressional vet, Rep. Pete Stark, in Tuesday’s June primary. Stark labored to just under 42 percent of the electorate amid district and statewide apathy towards voting. Turnout may ultimately hover around a shockingly low 21 percent, countywide. Just under 9 percent of voters in Alameda County cast ballots at the polls and just over 10 percent of Democrats registered a vote.

The turnout, coupled with increased media scrutiny over Stark’s foibles and recent gaffes, not only aided Dublin Democrat Eric Swalwell, who advances to the November runoff, with 36 percent, but also newcomer Chris Pareja, whose performance along with its fallout, could shaped the next five months of this race.

A close to Stark’s reign in Congress is now an even-money bet, at best, but his demise won’t come from Swalwell moderates, but from his hated Tea Party rivals (it goes both ways). No other conclusion came made from Pareja’s astonishingly strong performance. Republican voters in Alameda County were easily the most energized voting bloc with turnout of over 27 percent. Decline to state voters, on the other hand, stayed home. Just over 8 percent of them cast a vote on Tuesday and just 2 percent hopped in the car and travelled to their polling place. These numbers were the seeds of Pareja’s impressive night. Without any money, the conservative-leaning, sometimes Tea Party adherent, managed to muster 22 percent of the vote.

Stark, Swalwell, Pareja

The animosity over the past few years between Stark and the Tea Party has been vigorous and consistent since the rise of the fringe group in the summer of 2010. Apparently, these folks weaned on conservative talk radio, put down their leather-bound Cabela’s sportsmen catalog long enough to bother to vote. For this group, they could take Swalwell or leave him as long as Stark is defeated in November and Pareja delivered this group wholesale, which makes it difficult to understand why Stark’s team was ringing a conciliatory tone towards Pareja in the final few months. Even consistently dropping hints that Pareja would do well in the primary. Apparently, they were correct, however, the party faithful failed to show up in numbers they expected. Of course, there was never any doubt Stark would win the primary, it was just how big a lead he could amass to gain breathing room and quell any party defections to Swalwell.

Most Democrats now generally agree on two major points that Stark’s will need to capitalize on in the fall. The most important factor is turnout. Stark can be buoyed by the presence of an presidential election in November featuring an popular incumbent Democratic president. One who happened to endorse Stark’s campaign. November won’t have this kind of abysmal turnout we saw Tuesday. It could work two ways, though. What if Tea Party anger in the district is again energized by hatred of Barack Obama and also vote? It wouldn’t be a wash, because Democrats greatly outnumber that group, but it’s still a plus for Stark, nonetheless. You could almost say if Obama loses the general election, it’s a good bet he takes Stark down with him.

Second, it’s all hands of deck within all Alameda County labor groups. Swalwell is not particularly labor-friendly and he comes with only two years of experience on a Dublin City Council that is more comfortable keeping workers under their thumbs than allowing them to prosper. Put it this way, you won’t hear Swalwell quoting Eugene Debs anytime soon. This shuffling of labor resources in hopes of saving Stark’s seat this year and in 2014 will have to be vociferous and unfortunately may hurt other East Bay Democrats hoping for help in their own races (Bill Quirk?).

The push will also entail local stalwarts making appearances in Stark’s behalf and a bit of an audition period for progressive Democrats who have long coveted his seat. That means, Ro Khanna, Sen. Ellen Corbett and Jennifer Hosterman campaigning for Stark as if they themselves were running (which, they should have anyway!). Khanna is already doing it. Last week, voters saw him advocating for Stark on local news and appearing at Mitt Romney’s surprise stop at Solyndra in Fremont. When KTVU couldn’t get Stark to talk to them, they went to Khanna, instead. Khanna also has a book coming out in August. What better way to sell books than to stump for the guy whose seat you hope to soon inherit?

While Swalwell’s second place finish was impressive, it wasn’t good enough to pry some of the county’s traditional power structure to his side. So, how is he going to raise the amount of money he needs to compete in November? At the final reporting post before primary day, Swalwell held over $51,000 in cash, as opposed to Stark’s $466,000. Labor will likely pour money into Stark’s coffers and Swalwell will continue to accept loads of $2,500 checks from Chinese nationals, but that won’t be enough. Herein lies the most interesting part of this race. How deep in the muck of shadowy Tea Party Super PACs will Swalwell step?

The blood money of Joe Ricketts, the backer of a Super PAC reportedly interested in helping defeat Stark, will undoubtedly become one of the main storylines of this race. Ricketts, you may recall, is the founder of AmeriTrade and funder of various conservative PACs, that was highlighted earlier this month in The New York Times. Ricketts vows to defeat Obama with a well-funded and intricate, some say racist, campaign in the fall. Ricketts gave $500,000 to a Super PAC named, “Campaign for Primary Accountability,” that has shown interest in spending money in the 15th Congressional District

Unfortunately, this race won’t be about jobs, health care or anything of substance, but the media waiting for Stark to make an embarrassing gaffe, union-backed mailers informing you businessmen from Communist China are meddling in your business, opposing mailers calling Stark an actual Communist and rhetoric wondering why Swalwell is cavorting with the Tea Party. So much for the issues.

15th District……………VOTES….PCT
PRECINCTS REPORTING 100%*
Pete Stark (I)…………..28137..41.8%
Eric Swalwell……………24226..36.0%
Chris Pareja…………….14964..22.1%
*including Contra Costa County

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