Elan Carr’s bumpy political road to D.C.

Elan Carr’s road to Washington, D.C., leads through Torrance. And while that South Bay city is mostly topographically flat, for Republican Carr, the path will likely be steep and rocky.

Carr, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, finished first in the primary in the 33rd Congressional District, a strongly Democratic constituency that extends from parts of the San Fernando Valley through Malibu, Santa Monica and Venice, and into Torrance, the latter being the largest city in the district and generally considered key to winning elections there. State Sen. Ted Lieu, a Democrat who lives in Torrance, finished second, and the two will meet in the November runoff.

The district, now represented by the 20-term retiring Democrat Henry Waxman, is 54.8 percent Democratic, and Lieu is heavily favored to win. In the 16-candidate primary, Lieu competed against eight other Democrats, while Carr was the best-financed of three Republicans, a huge factor in his getting 21 percent of the vote. Also in the race were a Green Party candidate, a write-in and some independents, including Marianne Williamson, a well-known self-improvement author and lecturer, who got many liberal votes that might otherwise have gone to Lieu.

Because so few Republican candidates entered the race, while so many Democrats split the vote, Carr’s finish has been written off by the experts. 

“Good candidate in the wrong district,” is how Carr is described by Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the “California Target Book,” the best source for analysis of California elections, especially those for Congress and the state legislature. A Lieu victory, he said, “is a done deal.”

But, as Rep. Eric Cantor’s  (R-Va.) defeat in Virginia this month shows, there’s always the chance of an upset.  And middle-of-the road Torrance has a history of going for more conservative candidates.

First, let’s look at what makes Carr unique — being a Jewish Republican candidate in a state where most Jews vote Democratic.  To the Carr team, that’s a plus.

Cantor’s defeat eliminates the House’s only Jewish Republican. An improbable Carr victory would vault him onto cable news political shows. A nice-looking, energetic and likable man, Carr could become the new Mr. Jewish Republican.

To Carr’s campaign consultant, John Thomas, that possibility could help Carr not only in parts of his district, but among Jewish contributors around the country. Carr’s mother and stepfather are from Israel.  He is a member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and he was supreme master of Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi), a national Jewish fraternity.

“The larger Jewish world is looking at Elan as being the only Jewish Republican in the House,” Thomas told me.

Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate and big donor to conservative Republican candidates around the country, flew to Southern California to host a Carr fundraiser at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills that Thomas said raised $200,000.  He said he hopes Adelson will also help out in the runoff.

In addition, AEPi members are being mobilized. “We’re renting several homes in the district,” Thomas said, to house the 50 to 75 members he hopes will show up for the campaign. Members also will be calling voters. Each chapter is being asked to pledge 15 hours of work to the campaign, and someone is being hired to coordinate the effort.

But what’s most important in this election is the demography of the 33rd District, which was created by the state reapportionment commission after the voters took redistricting out of the hands of the gerrymander-loving Legislature.

There are 191,096 registered Democrats in the district, 123,721 Republicans and 120,086 who declined to state their party affiliation.

Carr’s strong support for Israel, which he visits annually, may help him in Orthodox communities, as will the fact that he is an observant Jew. But Lieu is also a strong Israel supporter. And his liberal voting record (he is a strong critic of the National Security Agency’s domestic spying), as well as his backing by Democratic and environmental organizations, should win him big majorities in Malibu, Santa Monica, Venice and other portions of the Westside.

That brings the race down to Torrance, a city of 147,478 that extends from the Palos Verdes Peninsula east toward the 405 and 110 freeways.  It is a city that is 51 percent white, 35 percent Asian, 17 percent Latino and 3 percent black.

It’s a middle-class to upper-middle-class city where 45 percent have graduated from college and 93 percent from high school, and where the median household income of $76,082 is substantially above the statewide median of $61,400.

Lieu’s Democratic Party backing, his years as a Torrance city councilman and his Asian roots (his parents immigrated from Taiwan) add up to huge advantages for Lieu in Torrance.

A disadvantage for Lieu, in the eyes of Carr supporters, is bad economic news, mainly the decision by Toyota, Torrance’s largest employer, to move its U.S. sales and marketing operations to Plano, Texas, which will result in a loss of 3,000 jobs.   The Carr campaign, Thomas said, will “be principally about jobs and job creation.”

Citing Toyota, Carr probably will advertise by television and mail that Lieu has been a job killer. But that will be a difficult argument to make in a city where the unemployment rate, according to the YCharts economic information website, is 3.7 percent, steadily dropping from the 5.2 percent of two years ago. Statewide unemployment is 7.6 percent, the lowest since the recession began in 2008. And the reasons for Toyota’s departure remain unclear.

Carr also probably will be without help from a strong Republican nominee for governor. Gov. Jerry Brown is expected easily to beat Republican Neel Kashkari in the district as well as in the state. With a one-sided election, Carr’s hopes of increasing the Republican turnout seem dim.

Also in his favor, Carr’s years in the criminal courts prosecuting gang cases has made him a poised and engaging speaker, as I saw during candidate forums in the primary. And his years navigating through the infamously rough office politics of the district attorney’s office probably have given him a thick skin.

If he gets some of the big campaign financing that Republicans around the country will be competing for, Carr could be a candidate to watch in a volatile election year that has already produced surprises. 

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).