Harmer Tries To Re-Swing McNerney's House Seat

Debra J. Saunders

10/17/2010 12:01:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders

In 2006, voters in California's 11th Congressional District, which meanders from San Ramon to Stockton, fired Rep. Richard Pombo, once a highly popular congressman first elected in 1992. Pombo got caught up in a wave that cost the GOP 31 seats and its control of the House.

Pombo, however, was especially vulnerable because he had lost touch with his district. He had become a big man in Washington, and it made him arrogant. He apparently didn't care how it looked that his wife and brother worked for his campaign committee. He put his chief of staff on two federal payrolls - in his congressional office and in charge of the House Resources Committee.

While his too-liberal payroll decisions alienated his conservative base inland, Pombo's attempts to rewrite the Endangered Species Act alienated his East Bay constituents. A little-known Democratic challenger named Jerry McNerney beat Pombo with 53 percent of the vote.

"The voters didn't even know who McNerney was," opined Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book and a former GOP consultant. They had just had enough of Pombo.

Pombo decided to run for Congress again this year. But he didn't run in his old district -- once known as "Pombo Country" in light of the many Pombo real estate signs that dotted fields along freeways. This year, Pombo campaigned in the 19th Congressional District, where Republican George Radanovich was retiring. Once again, he lost. Garnering a modest 21 percent of the vote, Pombo came in third place in the June GOP primary.

Republican businessman and attorney David Harmer doesn't mention Pombo's name, but he seems keenly aware of the downfall of Tracy's erstwhile prince. Harmer wants to do to McNerney in 2010 what McNerney did to Pombo four years ago.

"I don't blame the voters for firing the Republican majority" in 2006, Harmer told me last week. The GOP had become too enamored of earmarks and increased federal spending.

After four years of Democrats running Congress and two years of President Obama, he continued, the result has been "a great four-year experiment for Keynesian stimulus" that has driven the national debt above the $13 trillion mark. Voters who wanted change found out they instead got "more of the same."

"A lot of what drove the 2006 wave is driving the 2010 wave," Harmer said.

The son of Ronald Reagan's lieutenant governor could well be right. Last year, Harmer ran in the special election to replace Rep. Ellen Tauscher of the 10th Congressional District. Harmer lost to Democrat John Garamendi.

But the 11th District tilts further right; Democrats and Republicans are evenly split, with 39 percent of the vote each. Obama carried the 11th District with 54 percent of the vote in 2008, but Hoffenblum believes, "Barack Obama would not carry that district this year."

So Harmer is working overtime to link McNerney to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "We would have the same result if we'd just give Nancy Pelosi a proxy vote," he said.

Others disagree. Said Hoffenblum, McNerney's "no Pelosi clone -- and if he should survive this, that should be the reason." And: McNerney "really works his district. He's not a lefty -- and has strong Republican support" at home.

On the other hand, McNerney had a $15 million asparagus earmark inserted in the pork-laden 2008 farm bill. He voted for the Bush TARP program, for the Obama stimulus packages and for ObamaCare. It seems more than fair to label McNerney as an entrenched member of the Beltway's spending class.

For his part, Harmer has taken the no-earmark pledge. He advocates a commission to cut federal spending models after the military's Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

Granted, it's easy for any Republican to support a commission to cut federal spending. But Harmer seems to understand that if Republicans take control of Congress, then fail to curb Washington's spending excesses, the GOP will lose control "in two or four years."

Voters in the 11th District are angry - but, Harmer told me, that doesn't mean "they like Republicans."