With Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) now out of the race, Republicans in the solidly conservative 4th district are jockeying for position to replace him — setting the stage for a primary battle that could split California’s House GOP delegation.
One potential scenario features a grudge match between rivals Rico Oller and former 3rd district Rep. Doug Ose — with moderates in the delegation siding with Ose and conservatives backing Oller, a former state Senator. Oller finished ahead of Ose’s sister, Mary, in the 2004 3rd district GOP primary to replace Ose but a close second to the upset winner, now-Rep. Dan Lungren (R).
Oller and Ose are both capable of spending a considerable amount of their own fortunes on any campaign, with Ose having more personal cash at his disposal than Oller, according to Republicans familiar with both individuals.
“I think it would be a brawl,” one Sacramento-based Republican strategist said.
Oller announced his candidacy on Thursday, immediately after Doolittle revealed that he would retire upon the conclusion of his current term, and proceeded to secure the tacit endorsement of the nine-term Representative.
Ose, who voluntarily retired in 2004 to honor a self-imposed term-limits pledge, confirmed in a telephone interview Friday that he is indeed considering a comeback. Republican sources in California and on Capitol Hill believe Ose is leaning toward running.
“I’m guessing we’ll see a split in this race between the more conservative and moderate Members of the delegation,” predicted one Republican insider.
This insider noted that California GOP Reps. Lungren and Brian Bilbray both failed to secure the unanimous support of the Golden State’s House Republican delegation when they successfully ran for a second stint in Congress in 2004 and 2005, respectively.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Sam Aanestad (R), an Oller ally — Oller’s former state Senate communications director currently holds the same position for Aanestad — acknowledged Monday that he is also considering a bid for Doolittle’s seat, although GOP operatives following developments in the 4th district consider his candidacy unlikely.
Also on Monday, state Assemblyman Ted Gaines (R), who last year launched an exploratory committee to consider the race and would have been considered a frontrunner had he run, decided against making the race, leaving Oller, Iraq War veteran Eric Egland and former Auburn Mayor Mike Holmes as the only announced candidates running in the Republican primary for now.
Police administrator Charlie Brown, who fell 3 points shy of knocking off Doolittle in 2006, is running again for the Democrats. But while he was leading Doolittle in some polls, his chances for winning the seat are probably diminished now that the scandal-tinged Congressman is retiring.
If the June 3 GOP primary boils down to a two-way race between Oller and Ose, the conventional wisdom gives Oller the edge. He is seen as the more conservative of the two and a better fit than Ose, who supports abortion rights, for a district that has 47 percent GOP voter enrollment and is considered among the most right-of-center in the country.
However, an internal Republican poll of 4th district GOP primary voters obtained by Roll Call painted a much brighter picture for Ose, although the sample was small and the margin of error was high.
The survey of 155 likely GOP primary voters (broken out of a sample of 300 likely general election voters) was conducted Jan. 7-9 by Wilson Research Strategies. It showed Oller in third place behind Gaines and Ose. The poll, which had a margin of error of 7.87 points, did not test any other candidate.
In the poll, Gaines led the the field tested with 21 percent support, followed by Ose at 19 percent and Oller with 10 percent. Additionally, Oller finished third in the favorable/unfavorable ratings generated by this poll.
Those numbers, asked of all 300 likely general election voters queried in the survey, showed Gaines to have a favorable/unfavorable rating of 21 percent to 6 percent, while Ose clocked in at 24 percent to 12 percent and Oller registered with 17 percent favorable and 14 percent unfavorable.
Still, many Republican insiders familiar with this district and Oller and Ose in particular give Oller the edge — at least at the outset.
“I think it’s more of a Rico district than an Ose district,” said one Republican who served with Oller in the state Legislature. “This is a really conservative district.”
While an Oller-Ose battle might be personal for the two politicians, it could also evolve into another round in the ongoing inside-the-Beltway battle between the conservative Club for Growth and the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership.
Some Republicans believe the Club for Growth is poised to back Oller in the 4th district GOP primary, while Ose was previously affiliated with the Republican Main Street Partnership.
Ose’s fiscal credentials and House voting record on tax issues may be solid enough to avoid the full ire of the club. But he is a moderate on social issues, and should the Main Street Partnership back him, it’s hard to imagine the club taking a pass on the race.
Republicans watching this budding primary unfold believe the two groups could have a significant impact on the contest.