Democrat Janice Hahn Wins CA-36 Special Election


The congressional race is another indication that social conservatives can't win in the Golden State, especially in solidly blue districts

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It's tough for a Republican to win California's 36th congressional district, where Democrats enjoy a sizable registration advantage, but it seemed like this could be the year. The competition, L.A. City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, had a long record of squandering time on ill-advised initiatives. She upset some Democrats during the primary campaign. And turnout was guaranteed to be low, a possible opening for a long shot challenger with an enthusiastic base of support. 

Early Wednesday morning, however, unofficial results showed that the Democrats won anyway, defeating challenger Craig Huey by a comfortable margin, 54.6 percent to 45.4 percent. "While Hahn's 9-point margin of victory was far under the district's nearly 18-point Democratic registration advantage," National Journal reports, "her get out the vote efforts -- aided in the final days by a robocall from former President Bill Clinton and phone-banks organized by Obama for America -- likely made a difference." The Atlantic's in depth primer on the race is here. It explains why neither candidate was desirable (and recounts Hahn's dogged pursuit of a wild alligator).

The outcome is another opportunity for California Republicans to absorb lessons they never seem to learn: it's folly to run staunch social conservatives in elections here, especially in blue districts. They just lose. Contra Rush Limbaugh, confidently running as a conservative doesn't always work when attempted. Per William F. Buckley's advice, the thing to do is run the electable candidate who is most conservative. Despite what the Tea Party may think, persuading folks who aren't already ideological allies is an important part of electoral politics. The base isn't enough.

And ignoring that advice hurts everyone, because in uncompetitive races, the Democrats who wind up getting elected are marginally worse than they'd be if the party were forced to up its game.

Instead we're governed poorly.  

California's 36th is a district that Democrats should win. So there were no surprises Tuesday, no hints about 2012, and no unexpected lessons to be gleaned about the national mood. 23 percent of registered voters turned out to elect a congresswoman who'll be mediocre at best, and whose most recent big idea is that the taxpayers of Los Angeles think about buying the Dodgers out of bankruptcy.

To mark her victory, may she turn her attention to national issues.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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