Ever since political neophyte Jerry McNerney knocked off scandal-plagued GOP incumbent Richard Pombo in the 2006 race for California's 11th congressional district, Republicans have eyed the opportunity this year to regain the seat. The 11th may be a diverse district, spanning from the more liberal outer edges of the East Bay to the socially conservative Central Valley, but it had been a longtime Republican stronghold. The GOP was convinced McNerney had gotten a lucky break and that a solid conservative could topple the inexperienced wind scientist who rode charges of corruption against his entrenched opponent to victory.
With that in mind this year Republicans chose a safe bet as their challenger: Dean Andal, a fiscal and social conservative former state assemblyman and former member of the state Board of Equalization (which run's California's tax and fee programs) from Stockton. But McNerney has proved to be a surprisingly adept politician and campaigner, and he may end up winning an easier race than most observers expected. "Republicans thought they had a serious chance here," says Wesley Hussey, assistant professor of government at California State University, Sacramento. "They thought a person like Dean Andal with solid conservative credentials and no real scandals could retract the district. But McNerney is looking like a tougher incumbent than the Republicans thought."
As a freshman Congressman, McNerney who didn't consider getting into politics until an unsuccessful 2004 run against Pombohas made few missteps. He has focused on energy and the environment, veterans' support and national security. He voted for both proposed federal bailout packages and against an Iraq funding bill that had no withdrawal deadlines, and he has said he supports gay marriage. Perhaps most important to his constituents, though, is his visible attempt to cross his district's great ideological divide that is physically symbolized by the Altamont Pass.
To the west of the Diablo Range are the outmost suburbs of San Francisco like Pleasanton, where McNerney is from; these areas tend to be more liberal and Democratic, and as more residents of San Francisco and the East Bay migrate to them, they are becoming a more influential part of the once solidly conservative district. To the east, are the more rural Central Valley cities of Stockton, Tracy and Manteca. McNerney has spent many weekends traveling from Washington D.C. to this socially conservative region to hold "Congress on the Corner" meetings or to meet with local advisory boards he created to get grassroots input on issues like agriculture, veterans care, education and business. "McNerney has been pretty successful at trying to stitch the communities together," says Robert Benedetti, a political scientist at College of the Pacific in Stockton. "He's not from the Valley, but he's made a real effort here."
Andal, by contrast, is from the heart of the Valley, and he has rarely passed up an opportunity to remind voters of this and warn repeatedly that McNerney is "way off the track for our district." Andal espouses fairly standard Republican positions: he is for offshore drilling, he is against earmarks and tax increases and he opposes gay marriage.
As the campaign nears the end, McNerney and Andal are hitting the airwaves with a few stinging last-minute accusations against each other. Congressman McNerney suggests in one ad that Andal's record proves he has misogynistic leanings; Andal was the only state assemblyman to vote against a rape definition bill in 1994, although he insists this vote was an mistake due to a clerical error (the bill would have expanded the definition of rape to include instances where the woman is incapacitated by drugs or alcohol and could not resist). In turn, Andal informs viewers in one of his own ads that last year McNerney accepted donations for what the challenger calls a wasteful federal earmark (the Congressman has said the $1 million for a defense contractor in the area developing Navy ship radar would benefit his district). Although negative, these attacks are not exactly the fireworks people may have expected in this election. "There isn't the venom that has shown itself here before," says Benedetti.
That absence of venom may be a reflection of the fact that the race isn't nearly as tight as people had once expected. As the campaign wanes, the consensus among analysts is that McNerney appears to have the edge. Not only is he well ahead in fundraisinghe now has over $1 million cash on hand compared to Andal's $850,000a local CBS affiliate released the election's only public poll on October 16 showing McNerney to be ahead by 11 points, with a 3.9 percent margin of error (though Andal's campaign insists its internal polls show the race to be much tighter). "If this were the old district, Dean Andal would be very solidly positioned in this campaign," says Republican political strategist Dan Schnur, referring to a 2000 redrawing of the district that brought in more East Bay Democrats. "But he's fighting against these broader demographic shifts, which is making it an uphill battle for him."