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2009 Elections Preview: CA-10

California 10th Congressional District — Special Election to replace Ellen Tauscher.

The Candidates: California Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi, Democrat
David Harmer, Republican
Various minor party candidates

The Polling: The only poll of the race, from SurveyUSA, shows Garamendi with a 50-40 lead.

Analysis: The ballyhooed race in New York’s 23rd Congressional District is not the only special election today; voters will also go to the polls to select a successor to Ellen Tauscher in California’s 10th Congressional District in Northern California’s inland East Bay. Actually, they’ve already been going to the polls, or at least to their driveways, since a majority of the voters in the district are expected to use California’s vote-by-mail option.

On paper, this race ought not to be close. Against Republican opponents in 2004, 2006 and 2008, Tauscher was re-elected with margins ranging from 65.2 to 66.5 percent of the ballots. In the special “jungle” primary in September, five Democratic candidates earned a collective 64.4 percent of the vote (closely matching Tauscher’s historical figure), with Garamendi taking the fairly narrow plurality at 25.7 percent. The district went for Barack Obama nearly 2:1 last November, and Democrats have a 47-29 registration edge in the district. Garamendi, being the state’s Lieutenant Governor, is quite well known, and had previously been considering a gubernatorial bid.

Still, the Republicans have made it a somewhat competitive campaign, with Harmer collecting a respectable $670,000 toward the race, not that far behind Garamendi’s $942,000. The SurveyUSA poll shows them within 10 points. The district did vote for Arnold Schwarzenegger by an 18-point margin in 2006. And Garamendi has one major liability: he is associated with S-a-c-r-a-m-e-n-t-o, that horrible place where budgets and incumbents go to die. Could Harmer actually pull off the upset?

It’s not very likely. The most immediate problem is that 51 percent of the district has already voted, according to SurveyUSA, with those votes going to Garamendi by 10 points. Now, to be clear, these aren’t “hard” numbers — this is still just a poll, with all the usual inexactitudes owing to sampling error and the like. But the Garamendi campaign claims that there have been 25,000 Democratic absentee ballots returned so far to 19,000 Republican ones — not, actually, all that impressive a margin for the Democrats, but probably enough to keep them out of trouble. Indeed, the fact that voting is comparatively easy in California because of mail balloting ought to hedge against the possibility of hugely lopsided turnout in this heavily Democratic district.

Meanwhile, independents who are dissatisfied with Garamendi will have the option of voting for the Peace and Freedom or Green Party candidates, which may hold down Garamendi’s margin but also take potential votes off the table from Harmer.

A final point: I’m not a huge fan of this inference-by-absence stuff, but the fact that the NRCC is not putting much effort into the race suggests that they don’t think it’s winnable. If Harmer had some internal polling showing himself within striking distance, you’d certainly think they’d have thrown a few hundred thousand in.

The Odds: I might take about a 15-1 flier on Harmer — and if Republicans do win here, or perhaps even pull close enough that the outcome will be uncertain for several days as California finishes counting mail ballots, they’ll really have something to crow about. With that said, I suspect that Garamendi will more likely than not win by larger than the 10-point margin that SurveyUSA projects. By the way, this race is not without upside to the Democrats, as Garamendi should be significantly more liberal than Tauscher, who has not always been a reliable vote for her party on issues like national security.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.