Obama’s numbers could swing 30th district race

Rep. Brad Sherman doesn’t intend to follow Rep. Henry Waxman’s advice to give up his San Fernando Valley congressional race against Rep. Howard Berman.

Instead, he has hired a high-profile campaign manager, Parke Skelton, who has worked for many Democrats, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Skelton e-mailed me the following: “Brad Sherman is running for re-election in the district that he lives in and where he represents the majority of the residents. He has a long history of effective leadership in this community and is proud to be supported by hundreds of local leaders from throughout the West San Fernando Valley.” That echoes what Sherman said last month: “I will run and am confident of winning.”

The contest for the 30th congressional seat will be one of the most-watched congressional races in the nation. Two well-known and successful Democratic Jewish candidates are opposing each other. In addition, there’s the President Barack Obama factor. His popularity is dropping in California. Will the candidates try to avoid being associated with him?

Another wild- -card factor is that the election will be run under new rules. Democrats, Republicans and independents will be on the same ballot. The top two finishers in the June primary will run against each other in the November 2012 general election. The primary and the runoff are expected to cost between $12 million and $13 million.

The state reapportionment commission created the district after giving Berman’s present Valley district a Latino majority. The commission then placed both Berman and Sherman in the 30th.

Trying to avoid such an expensive and uncertain race, Waxman, the veteran Westside congressman, feels the district should go to Berman, who is a friend and longtime colleague. “If we have this race between two Jewish Democrats, it is not because of Howard, it is because Brad chooses it,” Waxman said.

He’s proposed a solution: In Waxman’s view, Sherman should pull out of the race and run in a new Ventura County congressional district, which has no incumbent. That district would be more challenging to a Democrat than the 30th. It is 42 percent Democratic and 35 percent Republican — a margin that makes the seat winnable for the GOP. Gov. Jerry Brown lost the somewhat conservative area by 1 percent when he was elected in 2010. President Obama won the area in double digits in 2008, long before his current popularity decline.

Waxman conceded that the 30th “is not a great Democratic district,” but Sherman “has enough money to win it.”

Waxman called me to object to my analysis that it would be “suicidal” for Sherman to make that choice. “Why is it suicidal for a guy with $4 million [Waxman’s estimate of Sherman’s campaign funds]?” Waxman asked. “He could do himself a favor, he could do the Jewish community a favor, and keep himself in Congress without this unnecessary battle.”

Obama’s level of popularity will be an important factor in the 30th District race.

The Sept. 14 Field Poll showed that 46 percent of registered California voters approved of the way he is doing the job, while 44 percent disapprove. That’s an 8 percent drop from a Field Survey last June. His job approval rating is declining even among Democrats, dropping from 79 percent in June to 69 percent this month. In Los Angeles County, the decline was 9 percent, from 63 percent to 54 percent.

Polling figures on Obama for the 30th District aren’t available. But the West San Fernando Valley district tends to be more conservative than the East Valley and parts of the county across the Santa Monica Mountains. In addition, both Berman and Sherman may have to deal with the skepticism toward Obama that is prevalent among many Jewish voters, a substantial part of the district.

That skepticism was a force in the New York upset by Republican Bob Turner in the recent contest for the New York City seat vacated by Rep. Anthony Weiner. Turner’s victory coincided with a drop in Obama’s popularity in New York. The district is heavily Democratic.

As noted by Jewish Journal reporter Jonah Lowenfeld, there are differences in the way Berman and Sherman talk about the president. For example, when Obama gave his jobs speech on Sept. 8, Berman said he was “pleased to see President Obama take a definitive step tonight towards bringing this gridlock to an end and finally jump-starting efforts to get the economy moving again.” Berman added that he would soon introduce two separate jobs bills and exhorted the Republican majority to allow jobs legislation to pass.

Sherman was somewhat critical. “We need a bolder spending program over the next two years to get us out of this recession,” Sherman said. He called the president’s plan for job creation “good but insufficient,” and said it must be “paired with an even bolder program to reduce the deficit over the next 10 years.”

These are mild differences, but as Lowenfeld wrote in his jewishjournal.com Berman v. Sherman blog, “subtle doesn’t mean inconsequential.”

Watching this unfold is a Republican candidate, Susan Shelley, a novelist who is also Jewish. Rather than appearing only on a Republican ballot, as was the law in the past, Shelley and other Republicans will share the same ballot with Berman, Sherman and other Democrats.

She said in an e-mail, “Voter anger over President Obama’s Mideast policy, combined with frustration over the economy, could lead many Democrats to cross party lines and vote for a socially moderate Republican.”

Unlikely, perhaps. But whoever thought a Republican would replace Anthony Weiner in New York City?

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).