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Appealing to Independent Voters Key to Victory in California's Central Coast

by Kymberly Bays, published


California's new 24th congressional district will undoubtedly be one of the most interesting races to watch in the state, mainly due to changing dynamics of a district that now combines the communities of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. A new release by the Cook Political Report on Friday also counts this Central Coast district as a competitive House seat.

At the forefront of the race is sitting Congresswoman Lois Capps (D), who will face Republican challengers in former Lieutenant Governor Abel Maldonado and actor Chris Mitchum.

In an election where Democrats in California are predicted to reap multiple victories come November, finding an incumbent Democrat in danger of losing their seat is not a common occurrence. It's an outcome that would undoubtedly complicate Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's “Drive to 25” election strategy.

The seat is well within the sights of Republicans and Crossroads GPS has already produced anti-Capps ads. Yet with margins so slim between the two parties, results will likely be in the hands of decline-to-state voters.

At least one of the candidates is no stranger to recognizing how crucial independent voters are to elections. While serving as a Republican State Senator in the fall of 2009, Maldonado declared his party's refusal to allow independents to participate in primaries, “suicidal”.

He's now running for Congress in a district where independents could make all the difference, both in this Spring's primary and the general election in the Fall.

In a 2009 letter to then-state Republican party chair John Nehring, Maldonado challenged, “I believe our party is at a defining moment in our history and your decision to exclude 20 percent of voters from our primary will send us down a dangerous path from which there might be no return or recovery, the path of irrelevance.”

Republicans have refused to change their stance on open primaries but Maldonado's statement is prophetic to his run now. Decline-to-state voters account for 20% of the 24th congressional district, which has a general population slightly more than 700,000.

But he's not the only candidate who could appeal to voters dissatisfied with current party structures. Fellow Republican Chris Mitchum told the Santa Barbara News-Press earlier this month, "Politicians like Lois and Abel are the reason we are in the mess we are in now. They have both done their part to contribute to our financial duress.”

Rep. Lois Capps was easily endorsed by her party at the California Democratic Convention last weekend in San Diego. She'll need more than core support from Democrats to carry the new 24th District. What was once a safe region for her, new boundaries now render a swing district. Voter registration gaps between Democrats and Republicans are also closing in the region, with Democrats now holding only a 3% advantage.

An increase in voter turnout could be a major goal for all candidates in the 24th, if they intend on succeeding in their bid. A large swath of voters on University of California, Santa Barbara and Cal Poly San Lois Obispo campuses are up for grabs, but turnout was lethargic for voters on both campuses in 2010.

There is still time for other candidates to declare their campaigns, however they will face an uphill battle long shot Mr. Mitchum knows all too well: both Mr. Maldonado and Rep. Capps are well-funded, each with over $1 million in contributions so far.

Under new open primary election rules, the top two vote getters from upcoming primary elections will go on to the general election in November. Regardless of endorsements and fundraising, all eyes will be watching CD 24 as independents are finally heard.

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