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Fewer and fewer Republicans on North Coast

Published: Monday, November 5, 2012 at 6:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 6, 2012 at 8:28 a.m.

Imagine a Republican county supervisor from Crescent City winning the North Coast seat in Congress and holding onto it for 20 years.

That's what happened when Don Clausen, a World War II veteran, won the 1962 election in a district that stretched -- as it does now, with some variations -- from Marin County to Oregon.

But that area of rugged coastline and liberal-leaning voters now has no Republicans in Congress or the Legislature, nor does any GOP candidate have a shouting chance of success in today's election.

Rep. Mike Thompson, a St. Helena Democrat who never has lost an election on the North Coast, is a safe bet to beat Republican Randy Loftin, a political newcomer, in a new inland congressional district that includes Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati and the Sonoma Valley.

Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, also is highly favored to beat Republican Dan Roberts in the race for the North Coast seat left open by the retirement of Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a Petaluma Democrat who held her seat for 20 years.

In two of the three Assembly races that include parts of Sonoma County, there is no Republican on today's ballot, as Democrats prevailed in June's open primary that sent the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, to a November runoff.

Veteran Democratic Assemblyman Wes Chesbro of Arcata is expected to clobber Guerneville activist Tom Lynch in the 2nd Assembly District, while Assemblyman Michael Allen of Santa Rosa and San Rafael City Councilman Marc Levine are in a heated 10th District race.

Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, D-Davis, and her Republican challenger, John Munn, are competing in the 4th Assembly District, which covers a small chunk of Sonoma County, including parts of Rohnert Park and the Sonoma Valley.

The dilemma for Republicans is largely numerical, as their share of registered voters has dramatically shrunk over the past 50 years on the North Coast and in Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties.

Even in 1962, when Clausen took the congressional seat from Democrats, that party had a 53 percent majority of voters and a nine-point advantage over the GOP.

Democrats now account for 49 percent of voters but lead Republicans by a whopping 27 percentage points.

In Sonoma County, Democrats are 30 points ahead, in Mendocino 24 points and in Lake County 16 points.

The last Republican to represent the North Coast in Congress was Frank Riggs, who won the seat in 1990, 1994 and 1996.

Riggs, now active in Arizona politics, dropped out of the 1998 race won by Thompson, who has locked down the seat since.

"Republicans have hemorrhaged voters," said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist.

The Republicans who have challenged Democratic incumbents Thompson, Woolsey and Chesbro over the past 10 to 20 years are "sacrificial lambs," McCuan said.

They are typically political neophytes with scant cash, like Loftin, who raised less than $12,000 against Democratic rainmaker Thompson's $1.65 million.

"It's an exercise in futility," said Brian Sobel, a Republican political consultant who ran unsuccessfully for the Assembly in 1994.

Republicans who could raise more money are dissuaded from a nine-month campaign that is almost certainly fruitless, he said.

Years of gerrymandering have established legislative districts that are mostly controlled by one party or the other here and throughout the state and nation, Sobel and McCuan said.

But there's more to it than math.

Bev Hansen, a former Republican assemblywoman who represented part of Sonoma County for six years, described herself as a moderate who depended on Democratic crossover votes to get elected three times, starting in 1986.

"There are not many moderate Republicans in the Legislature now," said Hansen, now a Sacramento lobbyist.

Her backstory as a former school board member and a single mother of five children helped her win office in a district with a majority of Democratic voters.

State politics are more polarized than they were in the 1980s, and Republicans are entrenched on three issues -- taxes, regulation and the role of government -- that don't necessarily resonate on the North Coast, Hansen said.

"You've got to be delivering the message that matters to people," she said.

On the North Coast, those would be jobs, education and the environment, she said. Democrats have "done a good job of talking about the issues that matter to Sonoma County," Hansen said.

Told GOP registration in the county has declined from 34 percent in 1982 to 22 percent this year, Hansen said: "Holy, moly. That's dramatic."

Republican Don Sebastiani of Sonoma, who held a local Assembly seat for three terms in the 1980s, said an "ideological shift" to the left has compounded Republican woes on the North Coast.

Sebastiani, now a semi-retired wine industry executive, attributed his 1980 election in a Democrat-dominated district that included Vallejo to Ronald Reagan's coattails.

But the Iraq War, Patriot Act and other policies of the George W. Bush administration from 2000 to 2008 soured North Coast voters, Sebastiani said, "I think to a certain point understandably."

Voters also are growing less attached to party labels, he said, a trend reflected by the dramatic increase in independents, who now nearly match Republicans in North Coast voter registration.

The advent of the top-two primary, resulting in Democrat vs. Democrat elections, is "like the Soviet politburo," Sebastiani said. "I like competition of ideas."

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@ pressdemocrat.com.

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