Meet John Dennis, the 2010 Republican nominee in Rep. Nancy Pelosi's congressional district, and the House Minority Leader's likely general "run-off" election challenger in 2012 after Tuesday's novel top-two open primary. John Dennis is an antiwar Republican who supports gay marriage, legalizing marijuana, ending warrantless wiretaps, and withdrawing the military from Afghanistan and Iraq "as safely and quickly as possible". He has a fiercely independent streak, especially against the larger backdrop of the national Republican Party.
For those still trapped in the linear, partisan way of thinking about policy, John Dennis even seems to be somewhere "to the left" of Rep. Pelosi on civil liberties, drug laws, and foreign policy. Going into Tuesday's top-two open primary, Dennis has the endorsement of California's state GOP and recently told the Independent Voter Network in an interview that many conservative Republicans in his district actually respond well to his antiwar message because they like how independent it is: "The reason, I think, is because they like to see someone saying something other than the party line."
Dennis, who supported Ron Paul for the Republican Party's presidential nomination in 2008 and received a Paul endorsement during his 2010 bid for US Congress, draws inspiration from the controversial Texas congressman's libertarian political philosophy and unique policy agenda. He says that despite the appeal some of his policy agenda may have with progressives, he's had trouble making inroads with Democrats, who dominate California's 8th Congressional District and delivered Rep. Pelosi 80% of the vote in 2010. He will be courting and counting on independent voters to win November's general election against Rep. Pelosi, if he advances:
"I got something like four percent of the Democratic vote in 2010. If I can just expand that a little and do well with independents, who make up around thirty-four percent of the voters in my district, something interesting could happen. A lot of independents do know who I am, and usually when they know who I am and where I stand they tend to vote for me over Pelosi."
During our interview, I also asked how well Dennis' Ron Paul-inspired, "Peace and Liberty" message is doing among Tea Party activists and what his sense is of the Tea Party's influence in 2012 versus 2010, where it played a major role in shaping the political landscape.
"When I spoke at the Tax Day Tea Party rally at the Pleasanton Fairgrounds in 2010, there were thousands of people, as many as 8,000, I believe. At the Tax Day Tea Party rally in 2012, we had probably about 300, maybe as many as 400 people there. The tone of the speeches has changed too. They've mostly regressed to be typical rail-against-the-left, rail-against-the-Democrats, partisan kind of speeches-- except for mine, of course. I typically go to these and give a very strong antiwar, anti-military-industrial complex, pro-personal liberties message, and in my experience they actually respond to that. Part of the reason, I think, is because they like to see someone saying something other than the party line."
So at least in this candidate's experience, the Tea Party has lost a lot of its fire, its independent streak, and its numbers. When I asked him why he thinks this happened, Dennis answered:
"The soul of the Tea Party was rebellion against the Republican Party. They could see that they had been sold out by their party. They lost their soul by their de facto acceptance of the GOP's interventionist foreign policy, which caused them to drift into becoming an adjunct of the Republican Party."
The implementation of California's top two open primary gives Dennis a unique window into the effects of the election reform, especially as a candidate that doesn't always fall into line with the rest of his party. He believes the top two open primary has made it much easier for him as a candidate, as he's been able to avoid the brutal primary fight against an establishment pick that he had to endure in 2010 in order to get on the general election ballot.
Looking forward, he says that his campaign's internal polling has him confident that he will be one of the top two finishers Tuesday along with Rep. Nancy Pelosi.