With polls showing his presumed Democratic opponent beating him in 2008, embattled Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) is under pressure from House Republican leaders to retire at the end of this term.
House GOP leadership held its fire until some time after Labor Day, hoping Doolittle would see the political writing on the wall over the summer and voluntarily choose retirement. But with the Congressman digging in and promising to run for re-election, the leadership of his Conference — urged on by some rank-and-file Members — has held private discussions with Doolittle in an effort to convince him to retire.
Leadership “is telling him that the financial resources are not going to be there, at least from Members, and that he should step aside,” said one Republican House Member. “Everybody likes John. He’s a very likable guy, and there’s no animosity toward him whatsoever. But he’s not — rightly or wrongly — going to be able to win.”
Doolittle represents the heavily Republican and solidly conservative 4th district, centered in the suburbs and foothills just east of Sacramento. However, he barely won re-election last year over police administrator Charlie Brown (D), who is running again this cycle.
Brown had raised more money than Doolittle — who until this cycle had been a prodigious fundraiser — and led him in cash on hand at the end of the second quarter. A Brown campaign spokesman said Monday the Democrat was set to report approximately $212,000 raised for the third quarter, with $382,000 in cash on hand. Doolittle’s third-quarter Federal Election Commission report was unavailable at press time.
Despite the pressure emanating from Capitol Hill and in his district, Doolittle isn’t going anywhere — at least not yet.
The Congressman’s advisers in a telephone interview on Monday acknowledged that Doolittle has a tough road ahead, but tried to explain away his present difficulties while arguing that victory in 2008 is attainable.
To rebut publicity that his fundraising has been weak, Doolittle’s campaign said his in-district fundraising numbers are almost identical to what they were at this point in 2005. They credited Brown’s superior fundraising to the fact that Republicans in Washington, D.C. — including House GOP leadership — are abandoning the incumbent.
Brown has been the beneficiary of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and an overall party leadership that is supporting his effort and directing donations his way, the Doolittle advisers said.
Downplaying the Congressman’s legal troubles, Doolittle’s team said last year’s close victory over Brown was the result of years of shellacking by The Sacramento Bee, his district’s biggest newspaper, as well as the Democratic wave that knocked Republicans into the minority in both chambers of Congress.
The Congressman’s campaign also argued that GOP voters in his decidedly conservative district stayed away from the polls in 2006 because they were unenthused about voting for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), whom some California Republicans believe is too liberal.
“It’s very tough. He’s obviously having to deal with a lot of issues at the same time,” Doolittle campaign strategist Richard Temple said. “But he believes if he gives voters the opportunity to hear what he’s doing and what he’s accomplished, he’ll be re-elected, and he’s following that path.”
Currently, however, Doolittle’s political problems are acutely evident.
A survey conducted over the summer by Republican pollster Chris Wilson found Brown with a 20-point lead over Doolittle, 51 percent to 31 percent. Doolittle’s favorable-to-unfavorable was 28 percent to 56 percent, with 50 percent of respondents saying the Congressman should either retire or resign. Only 33 percent of those polled thought Doolittle should run for re-election.
The poll of 302 likely general election voters and 300 likely GOP primary voters had a margin of error of 5.6 points.
The political makeup of the 4th district should protect Doolittle from such poor numbers, even in the current difficult environment for the GOP. And in fact, Doolittle’s electoral performance was stellar until last year.
President Bush won the 4th district with 61 percent of the vote in 2004 — a 2-point improvement over his 2000 victory, with Doolittle himself winning six straight elections with at least 60 percent of the vote. But in 2006 he garnered just 49 percent of the vote while beating Brown, a first-time candidate with no previous public profile, by only 3 points.
Some Republican Members believe Doolittle might do more than jeopardize what should be a safe GOP seat. They worry that the ongoing federal investigation into his dealings as a Congressman could drag down the party by reminding voters of the unethical behavior that helped defeat several of their colleagues last year.
“I went to leadership and said you have to send message, and they said they did,” a second Republican House Member said.
This individual added that Doolittle’s appeals for donations to his legal defense fund have gone largely unanswered while GOP Members wait to see if the Congressman will follow through with his pledge to run for re-election.
The Republicans interviewed for this story say the grumbling over Doolittle, both on Capitol Hill and in California, is likely to remain private until sometime in January.
Doolittle’s political troubles emanate from a federal investigation into the connections he and his wife, Julie, have to now-jailed GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Additionally, there was a voter backlash last year over revelations that the Congressman was ostensively enriching himself by legally employing his wife as his fundraising consultant.
The bad news has continued for Doolittle this year, with his Virginia home being raided by the FBI and several of his current and former aides being subpoenaed by the Justice Department. Throughout, Doolittle has maintained his complete innocence and accused the Justice Department of conducting a witch hunt to distract from its own problems that came to a head this summer with the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
If Doolittle still has not announced he will retire at that point — and with California’s March 7 filing deadline for incumbents looming, some Republicans are prepared to publicly urge the Congressman to retire upon the conclusion of his current term — his ninth in the House. These Republicans say they would back one of Doolittle’s GOP primary opponents if he refused to back down.
One House Republican aide said GOP power brokers are looking for a candidate they can back against Doolittle in California’s June 3 primary, should such a move become necessary.
“People are looking for a good candidate,” this aide said.
Thus far, former Doolittle supporter and Iraq War veteran Eric Egland (R) has jumped into the primary, as has former Auburn Mayor and 2006 GOP primary candidate Mike Holmes. Egland has raised $77,000 since getting into the contest in mid-August and has around $70,000 in cash on hand.
Popular state Assemblyman Ted Gaines (R) has opened an exploratory committee to examine a bid, and former state Sen. and 2004 3rd district candidate Rico Oller (R) is known to be interested in running.
Jon Fleischman, the former executive director of the California GOP who publishes the Flashreport.org blog on Golden State politics, said Doolittle has maintained a bit of a stranglehold on power in his district. Some of his supporters in the Placer County Republican Party recently offered a motion to censure Gaines for threatening to challenge the Congressman in the primary (the motion was defeated).
But Fleischman said support for Doolittle dissipates the further away you get from his district, and he predicted that some portion of the California GOP grass roots would move to oust him in the primary. “Unless John Doolittle can effect objective polling data [that proves his viability] fairly soon, I think you’re going to see more concerted effort to get him to retire,” Fleischman said.
“We want to keep the seat in the Republican column, and can’t afford to spend $8 mil to do it.”