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Surf’s Up in Today’s Special House Race

Voters in California’s 37th district head to the polls today in a special election to determine the successor to the late Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D), with the 17-candidate race boiling down to a battle between Democratic state legislators Jenny Oropeza and Laura Richardson.

Some independent observers believe Oropeza, a state Senator, could have the momentum — if for no other reason than the fact that Richardson, a state Assemblywoman, accused Oropeza over the weekend of illegal campaign activities and formally asked the FBI and Justice Department to investigate the matter.

Also, the election is expected to be an extremely low-turnout affair, in which case the major newspaper endorsements — all of which went for Oropeza — could be influential, as the voters who participate in such contests tend to be newspaper readers. Oropeza was endorsed by the Los Angeles Times, Long Beach Press Telegram and the Daily Breeze.

“I think some things have hurt Richardson,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican consultant who is co-editor of the California Target Book, a political tip sheet.

If no candidate secures more than 50 percent of the vote in today’s special election, the top vote-getters from each political party will proceed to an Aug. 21 runoff. With 17 candidates on the ballot, including Millender-McDonald’s daughter, Valerie McDonald (D), a runoff is possible.

But because the Southern California, Long Beach-area district is overwhelmingly Democratic, whichever Democrat emerges with the most votes today will effectively be the next 37th district Representative.

In a news release Saturday, Richardson claimed Oropeza accepted campaign contributions in exchange for “promising” to support particular legislation if she is elected to Congress. Richardson also accused Oropeza of illegally coordinating campaign activities with an independent expenditure committee.

Richardson sent letters requesting a formal investigation to the FBI and Justice Department.

John Shallman, Richardson’s chief strategist, denied that the move was an act of desperation and said he still expected the Assemblywoman to pull out a victory. However, his enthusiasm was more restrained than it was two weeks ago, when the campaign publicized an internal poll showing Richardson leading Oropeza by 9 points, 25 percent to 16 percent, with 35 percent of the voters undecided.

“I think we have a great chance to win,” Shallman said. “In spite of the money from outside sources for our opponent, we’ve been competitive.”

Parke Skelton, Oropeza’s chief consultant, said the accusations smacked of desperation to him. Skelton said he hasn’t polled in more than a month — and said it’s hard to predict the outcome of the contest because developing an accurate turnout model for a low-turnout special election like this one is difficult.

Richardson, with backing from the AFL-CIO-affiliated Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and other key unions, is thought to have an advantage on the ground. But Oropeza has the support of the California Democratic Party.

And Skelton contended that ground game isn’t everything, adding that the demographics of the approximately 21,000 absentee ballots that had been returned as of Monday were promising.

“It’s not just about the ground game,” Skelton said. “There is a universe of high-propensity voters, and that’s about persuasion.”

The 37th district is decidedly Democratic. Millender-McDonald won re-election with more than 82 percent of the vote last year, while Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) garnered nearly 75 percent of the presidential vote in 2004.

The multi-ethnic district features significant populations of blacks and Latinos, with a smattering of Asian-Americans. White voters are the minority but tend to vote in higher numbers than blacks or Latinos.

All of this could have an impact on today’s outcome, as voters in the 37th district are inclined to support candidates of a similar ethnicity if they are able to. With several black candidates, McDonald and Richardson among them, black voters could split the vote and make it easier for a Latina like Oropeza to win.