Pombo vs. McNerney: Does “vulnerable” signal victory?

Folks in the camp of Democratic congressional candidate Jerry McNerney were excited to read a Cook Political Report analysis that called incumbent GOP Rep. Richard Pombo “vulnerable.”

Unhappiness over the Iraq War, President George Bush’s unpopularity, high gas prices and congressional scandals are dark clouds in a number of otherwise safe Republican districts, says Cook Political Report analyst Amy Walter.

“In a year where Congress’ approval rating is at just 29 percent, voters aren’t as willing to let incumbents simply stow their political baggage in the overhead compartment as they have been in the past,” Walter wrote.

But calling Pombo vulnerable is not the same as thing as saying McNerney will win, Walter cautioned in a follow-up telephone interview.

“Opportunity does not equal victory,” Walter says. “Many of the Democrats (facing vulnerable Republicans) are woefully underfunded and lack name recognition. That allows the incumbent to define the challenger.”

As of June 30, the last quarterly reporting period, Pombo had collected $2.2 million in contributions compared with $448,946 for McNerney.

The money advantage is especially acute in Congressional District 11, Walter says, which straddles two expensive media markets. It costs roughly $800,000 a week to run television ads in the San Francisco market.

Let’s be honest, Walter says.

If it weren’t for the sour smell dogging Republicans across the country, no one would be talking about Pombo’s race at all. He’s a seven-term incumbent with a 7-percentage point party registration advantage, two very strong indicators of the outcome.

“But for the political climate being as bad as it is, it would be fair to say that this race would be in a safe category,” Walter said.

At the same time, Democrats haven’t invested the money to take advantage of Pombo’s predicament and don’t appear likely to do so.

McNerney has failed to qualify for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue fundraising program. The committee has raised nearly $4 million in this initiative for 34 Democratic congressional candidates.

Democrats need to win 15 new seats in order to take majority control of the House of Representatives in November.

“But it’s not enough that Pombo is vulnerable,” Walter said. “You have to have enough money and resources to convince people that you are a viable alternative. There’s been no indication to me, at this point, that McNerney will be able to beat Pombo.”

Meanwhile, salon.com posted an interesting story on McNerney titled “Can a politically clumsy windmill engineer who wants the U.S. out of Iraq succeed in his quest to unseat Abramoff ally and eco-villain Richard Pombo?” by Michael Scherer. Check it out.

Lisa Vorderbrueggen