Sen. Dianne Feinstein must have been a saint in her past life, because in this life she enjoys high poll numbers, respect from people in both parties and Dick Mountjoy as her Republican opponent in her 2006 re-election.
"Who is he?" you might ask, if you're like most Californians. Mountjoy is a former state legislator, whose only other statewide run was for lieutenant governor in 1998, when he came in third in the GOP primary.
I like the guy. As an assemblyman in the 1990s, he championed the unsexy but important issue of workers' compensation reform. Later, he took on the gasoline additive MTBE.
At 74, Mountjoy is an acquired taste -- a plaid leisure suit of a man, a walking style crime, kin to your backslapping Uncle Ernie, who always cracked bad jokes, a token of a California that no longer exists. He's so corny that his bio claims he "failed kindergarten because he wouldn't talk. And he nearly failed the first grade because he wouldn't stop talking."
Mountjoy may be a mere two years older than DiFi, yet he seems to hail from an earlier generation. Mojo was mayor of Monrovia; DiFi was mayor of San Francisco. After Mountjoy graduated from high school and before he went to work at the Studebaker plant, he served on the battleship Missouri during the Korean War. After Feinstein graduated from Stanford, she saw carnage in 1978 when San Francisco Supervisor Dan White gunned down Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in City Hall. He's Old California. She's New California.
Mountjoy is so out of the California mainstream on abortion that he voted against state budgets just because they paid for the procedure.
On the other hand, he is in sync with the majority of voters on immigration -- his legislation provided the backbone for Proposition 187, the 1994 voter-approved measure that would have denied benefits to illegal immigrants, had it not been overturned by the courts. Ditto his opposition to same-sex marriage.
In the face of Feinstein's clear popularity among voters, it's impossible to imagine Mountjoy winning. When I ask GOP biggies what they think of his chances, they plead for me to change the subject and make me promise not to quote them by name.
Or they try to frame Mojo's candidacy as a good thing. After all, Mountjoy won't siphon off millions of campaign dollars sorely needed for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's re-election campaign.
It's become a bit of a parlor game to rattle off the names of Republicans more likely to have given Feinstein a run for her money -- Rosario Marin, who lost the GOP primary for Sen. Barbara Boxer's seat in 2004; Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle; White House aide Ruben Barrales -- while enhancing their own political profiles. GOP political consultant Ken Khachigian notes that, other than the governor, California's most prominent Repubs are members of the House -- men like David Dreier, Jerry Lewis and Ed Royce -- but they don't want to forfeit their House committee chairmanships by running.
Not that Khachigian, who ran Marin's 2004 campaign, sees that as a good thing. "The only thing I will concede to Boxer is that she stepped up to the plate in '92 and risked her House seat" to run for the Senate. In California, no House Republicans are willing to take the same risk.
Enter Mountjoy. As I see it, no electable candidate was willing to risk losing. (As Feinstein adviser Kam Kawata noted: "I think that people realize there's no such thing as a free run. If you lose, you're a loser.") Yet Mountjoy takes the fact that he faces no primary challenge to mean, as he boasted over the phone, that party leaders "cleared the primary for me." Funny, Mountjoy didn't even rate a speaking role at the last state GOP convention.
In a game where money talks, Mojo will be utterly outspent. Kawata told me that Feinstein had about $6.5 million or $7 million in the bank. "We methodically started building our campaign organization five years ago," he explained. With a two-to-one lead according to the Field Poll, aides figure Feinstein won't have to scramble for every loose dime in California.
Mountjoy himself told me he had about $50,000 in the bank -- a coup, since he had just started fund raising in earnest a week earlier.
Mountjoy's weakness clearly has emboldened Feinstein and allowed her to move to the left. Not long ago, DiFi opposed allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens. Now, she supports it. Having voted for the Iraq war resolution, she now wants to pull out all but 50,000 troops by year-end. She must figure she has nothing to lose.
As I see it, the GOP has but one hope: Kidnap Mountjoy, and brainwash him so that he thinks he is the affable and stylish David Dreier.