Corbett was hoping Stark would not seek re-election in 2012, and even considered challenging him after he made it clear that he would, but ultimately backed down. That decision proved to be like manna from heaven for Eric Swalwell. A prosecutor from a conservative Bay Area suburb, Swalwell was too young and had yet to pay enough dues to be taken seriously by the Democratic establishment or by or organized labor and had no support to lose by challenging the incumbent.
Swalwell, however, proved to be a consummate campaigner, willing to knock on door after door, attend event after event, and embrace the power of social media and new campaign technologies. He was also able to draw on the expertise of local politicos disaffected with Stark. He became the darling of the news media, which covered Stark’s gaffes with gusto. And he was able to make the race about personalities, rather than issues, which allowed him the flexibility of appealing to voters with very diverse ideologies.
Ultimately, it was both redistricting and the new open-primary system in California that gave Swalwell his win. Only 42% of CD 15 had been previously represented by Stark, and the new parts were wealthy, more conservative, suburban cities. Swalwell was able to capitalize on his more moderate political views, his law enforcement background and court moderate Democrat, Republican and independent voters. After his surprisingly good showing in June, which put him in a one-to-one contest with Stark in November, he was able to draw more widespread support; by the end of the campaign, he had raised $826K and spent $800K of that. That still pales in comparison with the almost $1.4M Stark spent on this race, but it definitely made him competitive.
At the end of the day, in the November election, Stark’s incumbency held and he easily won the part of the district that he had historically represented, while Swalwell easily won the rest.
The question, of course, is what all of this means for Ellen Corbett.
Ellen Corbett is not Pete Stark. She is a calm, measured politician unlikely to make offensive statements on the campaign trail and give Swalwell the type of ammunition that he had with Stark. After a couple decades in public office, however, she's sure to have done things Swalwell can capitalize on.
Corbett currently represent most of CD 15. In order to win she will have to both carry these areas and make inroads into Dublin, Pleasanton and San Ramon. Probably easiest will be winning those southern Alameda county voters who have repeatedly voted for her and Stark. Swalwell is well aware of this and he is reaching out towards those parts of the district.
In order to convert voters who chose Swalwell over Stark, Corbett will need to make a clear case as to why she’s a better choice for them than the man they just put in office. Attacking Swalwell's youth or inexperience did not work for Stark, nor did portraying him as a tea partier. Indeed, all the signs point to Swalwell following the party line. He has co-sponsored gun control legislation and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and he happily accepted being appointed an assistant Whip, which means he is now responsible for making other Congress members do what the Democratic leadership wants them to do.
One area in which both Eric Swalwell and the Democratic leadership are particularly weak is the protection of civil liberties. In addition to supporting gun control, Swalwell approves of the Patriot Act, going to war with Iran and has dodged questions about whether he supports US Presidents having the power to assassinate American citizens (which would imply that he does). Swalwell, moreover, has made it explicit that he doesn’t believe in a separation of Church and State and has suggested there is no place in government for non-believers. While those positions may play well with his conservative base in both parties, they will make many voters on his district very uncomfortable. Corbett could seize on this and develop a strong civil liberties agenda that would put civil libertarian voters in play. That said, Corbett has not focused on civil liberties in the past and seems to be in favor of stronger federal gun control measures.
Corbett has another serious problem: money. She is not good at getting it. She started the year with only about $100K in her campaign account for Congress, that’s less than a tenth of what she will need in order to run a competitive race. And it’s not clear where her funds will come from. Her previous campaigns have been funded almost exclusively by PACs, so she doesn’t have a network of individual contributors on whom to rely on. PACs, however, are unlikely to support her unless she can give them something that Swalwell can’t or won’t.
It’s also unclear how much support Ellen Corbett will be able to get from the Democratic party, organized labor and other groups. She's made many friends in all her years in politics, but also enemies. Local labor will probably stick with her, but they may not be able to give her any money if the AFL-CIO sides with Swalwell. Party insiders will look at what they've gotten from Swalwell and what they can expect to get from Corbett. The national leadership, meanwhile, will not go against Swalwell if he doesn't first break with them.
Even with if Corbett is able to get local support, her campaign has one additional problem: it has not embraced digital campaign technologies. As of this writing she doesn’t have a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a blog, a mailing list or even her own campaign website. This means that, at least online, the story of her campaign is being told by others.
Swalwell, on the other hand, has been tweeting out a storm, keeping up his Facebook page, posting videos on YouTube, blogging on Patch and making sure he’s seen everywhere. According to a recent tweet: “January by the numbers: 50 mtgs, 30 dist. events attended, 10 hearings, 200 guests from #ca15 for swearing-in & 9,000+ miles in the air.” Moreover, Swalwell has been keeping the eyes of the media on him by hosting quirky events (e.g. “Ride with your Rep“) and vowing to try out one job held by people in his district every month.
One final factor on this analysis are what other candidates might enter this race. It's unlikely at this point that any serious Democrats will run for this seat, but if a liberal Democrat does run, s/he could steal a substantive amount of votes from Corbett. On the other hand, Corbett could get lucky and a serious moderate Republican could enter the race. With Swalwell tilting to the left, such a candidate could very well draw enough Republican and declined to state vote so as to kick Swalwell out in June. If I was Corbett, I would be looking hard through my Rolodex with anyone with an R by their name.
An extended version of this article was previously published in her blog.