If there is such a thing as an “average” congressional district, it is not California’s 52nd.
Covering a northern swath of San Diego, along with the upscale suburbs of Poway and Coronado, the district is home to an impressive list of higher-education institutions, Navy and Marine Corps bases, and acres of tidy business parks with biotech and high-tech companies.
It also has another distinction. Although most congressional districts nationwide are safe for incumbents, the 52nd is anything but.
In 2012, Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray was defeated by Democrat Scott Peters, an environmental attorney and former San Diego City Council member.
This year, three fiscally conservative Republicans — a former San Diego City Council member, a former Marine captain, and a trauma surgeon — are looking to unseat Peters.
The 52nd is one of only seven districts in the nation — and the only one in California — rated as a “pure toss-up” by the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. Registration is closely divided: 33.8% Republican, 32.3% Democrat, 28.7% independent.
Republicans might be poised to reclaim the seat as the economy struggles, and President Obama is plagued by sagging poll numbers and the controversy over Obamacare. Turnout in the June primary and November runoff will be low to modest, which should help Republicans.
The leading Republican challenger is former Councilman Carl DeMaio, a self-described “new generation Republican” and “libertarian-oriented guy.”
A transplant from Washington, D.C., DeMaio was elected to the council in 2008, where he was a major force in calling for public-employee pension reform and outsourcing of city services and defeating a proposed sales tax boost. He takes credit for bringing the city back from the brink of bankruptcy — although that assertion is debated.
He lost the mayor’s race in 2012 to Democrat Bob Filner but did well in that portion of the 52nd District that is within the city. Not long after his defeat, he began looking at Peters’ seat in Congress.
He is a relentless campaigner and fundraiser and a ubiquitous presence on morning television news shows. Recently that has included positive national coverage on Fox News.
“Carl is perhaps the most ambition-driven politician in San Diego,” said John Kern, a Republican consultant and former chief of staff to then-Mayor Dick Murphy.
Rival candidate Kirk Jorgensen, 43, a political novice who served with the Marines in Iraq, admits being impressed by DeMaio’s energy but annoyed that he won’t talk about foreign policy and national defense.
“Carl is a machine,” Jorgensen said. “But this election is not about pensions and potholes.”
DeMaio, 39, has a well-stocked campaign treasury, the support of the editorial page of the U-T San Diego newspaper and a granular knowledge of the district’s voting patterns.
Also, people know DeMaio; in fact, some polls suggest more people know him than know the incumbent.
“Usually one of the tallest hurdles for challengers is [low] name identification,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor at Rothenberg. “DeMaio doesn’t have that problem.”
But with high name identification has come high negatives.
DeMaio had more than his share of political fights: with labor unions and with other council members. He was no favorite of then-Mayor Jerry Sanders, a fellow Republican who endorsed him over Filner through gritted teeth.
“He was the most contentious council member in a long time, he doesn’t get along with anyone,” said trauma surgeon Fred Simon, 61, who says he is prepared to spend more than $1 million of his own money in hopes of finishing second and making the fall runoff.
After Filner resigned in disgrace in August, Republican and business kingmakers met in La Jolla to pick a GOP candidate to run in a special election. The group chose the more moderate Councilman Kevin Faulconer — although DeMaio insists he had already decided to stick with the congressional race.
Peters, 55, has made a priority of supporting veterans’ benefits and environmental causes (he’s part of an algae/biofuel caucus). He helped get money for border infrastructure to boost bi-national business. He views himself as a reformer.
“I’m as hacked off as anyone about the dysfunctional politics of Congress,” Peters said. “But Carl is someone who by his record would add to it.”
Peters has even formed a working relationship with former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), whom he met while they worked out at the congressional gym.
He supports repealing the medical devices tax in Obamacare and wants the government to increase investment in scientific research. He stresses constituent service.
“Please, if you have any issue with the federal government, call us,” Peters told a gathering at an eyeglass manufacturing firm. “We’ll be your advocate.”
A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Web video asserts that DeMaio is the “bought-and-paid-for candidate” of the conservative Koch brothers.
The Kochs’ political committee, Americans for Prosperity, has run television ads blasting Peters over his support for Obamacare.
Another group supported by the Kochs has also contributed to DeMaio’s campaign. In his years before running for City Council, DeMaio was a consultant for Koch-supported groups, though he downplays the connection.
“I’ve never been in the same room as the Koch brothers,” he said.
During the mayoral campaign, Filner criticized DeMaio’s partner, Johnathan Hale, publisher of the San Diego Gay and Lesbian News, for, among other things, allegedly being responsible for a rowdy party that damaged outdoor fountains at Balboa Park. The charge proved unfounded.
DeMaio said he is ready to respond if his opponents target Hale.
“This time I won’t be as forgiving,” said DeMaio, who stirred media buzz when his television ad showed him briefly holding hands with Hale.
The gay political action committee Victory Fund has refused to endorse DeMaio, citing his refusal to be more forceful on LGBT issues, including the legal fight against Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage.
DeMaio responds that he supports gay marriage but believes that both political parties have used race, gender and sexuality as campaign issues to distract the public from more important concerns about governmental regulations and the economy — a strategy he blasts as the “shiny object game.”
His campaign appearances include criticism of Peters but also of the GOP. He has a campaign plan called Fix Congress First that includes cutting off congressional salaries if a budget deal is not reached.
“I know that makes me the skunk at the garden party in some quarters,” he told a small gathering of admirers in Scripps Ranch.
On one topic the incumbent and his three challengers agree: The 52nd District is both unique and a very comfortable place to live.
“I wouldn’t take a plane every week to leave this place if I didn’t think we could fix [Congress],” Peters told a gathering at the eyeglass group.
Jorgensen notes that all Navy SEALs are trained in Coronado and that San Diego has one of the Marine Corps’ two boot camps. “Ask Al Qaida if the 52nd makes a difference,” Jorgensen says in a television ad.
DeMaio, with his focus on reforming public pensions, increasing accountability and keeping taxes low, says he’s ready to teach Congress the San Diego way of improving government.
“We’re San Diego,” DeMaio said. “We can do anything.”