Political support for Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) is beginning to erode, with Republicans in his district predicting he will face a credible primary challenger next year if his legal woes continue and he does not abandon his vow to run for re-election.
Originally silent or supportive following an FBI raid of Doolittle’s Virginia home last month, a growing number of Republican activists in the Sacramento-area 4th district have decided they can no longer support the Congressman and are beginning to explore backing other candidates.
Prospective candidates include three state Assemblymen, a former state Senator and a popular radio talk show host. Some are laying the foundation for a 2008 bid but are holding their fire in the hopes that Doolittle changes course.
“The sharks are starting to circle,” said Aaron Park, a Placer County Republican activist and staunch Doolittle supporter. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he drew a credible primary opponent.”
Richard Robinson, Doolittle’s chief of staff, acknowledged Monday that the Congressman is under some political pressure to drop his plans to seek a 10th term. But Robinson said Doolittle still has considerable support in the district and that his base is still with him. He expressed doubt that a well-known Republican would take the bold step of challenging the Congressman in 2008.
Robinson said Doolittle expects to revive his political fortunes and position himself to win re-election. But if things don’t go the way Doolittle predicts, Robinson indicated that the Congressman is prepared to step aside for the good of his party.
“Congressman Doolittle is a very politically astute individual. He fully recognizes the political challenges before him and he’s confident he can overcome them,” Robinson said. “But if it’s apparent that he can’t, he won’t turn the seat over to a Democrat. It’s a Republican seat and it will remain represented by a Republican.”
Many Republicans in Doolittle’s district believe the Congressman ultimately might be exonerated. But they are beginning to conclude that he has suffered irreparable political harm from the ongoing FBI investigation into his and his wife Julie’s connection to incarcerated former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Fueling this analysis are some troubling first-quarter fundraising numbers and the close victory Doolittle eked out last year over police administrator Charlie Brown (D). Running again in 2008, Brown ended March with an effective cash-on-hand lead over Doolittle of $140,000.
Sources say Doolittle’s fate could hinge on his second-quarter Federal Election Commission report and how much money he raises at a scheduled May 31 fundraiser that is one of the marquee events the Congressman holds annually in his district. Doolittle has held the Dixieland Jazz Jubilee almost every year since 1981, and Robinson said all signs point to the event in Folsom being successful.
If the fundraiser goes poorly and Doolittle’s overall second-quarter numbers are weak, potential primary challengers might seize on those facts as proof that support for the Congressman has waned to the point that they have no choice but to enter the race or risk allowing the seat to fall into Democratic hands. In fact, some knowledgeable Republicans believe Doolittle’s fate is already sealed.
“Realistically, he can’t run again. He won’t win,” said one California Republican familiar with Doolittle’s district. “As each day progresses it’s going to get tougher on him.”
For now, Doolittle is aggressively fighting back. The Congressman has armed his supporters with talking points about the FBI investigation, while Doolittle himself makes his case via newspaper interviews, opinion pieces and talk radio appearances.
In each venue, Doolittle has proclaimed both his and his wife’s innocence. He even has gone so far as to suggest that the raid on his Virginia home was motivated by the Justice Department’s desire to prove its even-handedness in the wake of Congressional investigations into Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the firing of several U.S. attorneys.
In a 14-point memo for Doolittle supporters, the Congressman’s backers are urged when discussing the matter to question the motive of the raid on Doolittle’s home and the timing of the leak publicizing its occurrence. One talking point calls the raid “unnecessary” and says it was an attempt to intimidate and garner media attention, rather than pursue the truth.
The memo also emphasizes that only the office of Julie Doolittle’s home-based company — Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions — was searched, not the Congressman’s records or belongings, and references a statement by former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) regarding his pending investigation that the Justice Department “is running amok. Fish or cut bait.”
Robinson said the speculation that Doolittle might face a credible challenger in the June 2008 primary is to be expected. But he said it would be impolitic for another Republican to kick Doolittle while he’s down.
“There’s a lot of support in the district for the Congressman right now,” Robinson said. “His base wants him to survive this.”
Republicans hold an 18-point voter-registration advantage over Democrats in the 4th district. But Doolittle beat Brown by only 3 points last year while garnering just 49 percent of the vote, despite outspending the Democrat $2.3 million to $1.6 million.
Last year, Doolittle was saddled with bad publicity from revelations that he employed his wife as his fundraising consultant and ostensibly enriched himself via the commissions she earned from his campaign. Since the FBI search, Doolittle temporarily has stepped down from the Appropriations Committee.
Among the candidates said to be contemplating the race are state Assemblymen Ted Gaines (R), whose legislative district overlaps about two thirds of the 4th district; Rick Keene (R); and Roger Niello (R).
Former state Sen. Rico Oller (R), who lost the 2004 3rd district primary to now-Rep. Dan Lungren (R), also is mentioned as interested in running, though he might be less likely to primary Doolittle.
Sacramento talk radio host Tom Sullivan (R) expressed his interest in running last week, one day after Doolittle and his wife appeared on his show. Sullivan said he would seriously consider running if Doolittle retires, and some observers of the district believe he could be a formidable candidate.
A telling sign of Doolittle’s increasingly precarious electoral predicament is that the National Republican Congressional Committee has declined to defend him, even though one of its prime missions is incumbent protection. When asked to comment Monday on Doolittle, NRCC spokeswoman Julie Shutley said only that Republicans would retain the 4th district in 2008.
“The 4th district of California is a ruby red district and one we plan on keeping in the near and distant future,” Shutley said.