Democrat Janice Hahn's victory last night over Republican Craig Huey in a Los Angeles-area special congressional election should not have come as a surprise. For the past couple weeks, the political class was abuzz (well, mildly abuzz) with speculation that Huey, who spent $883,000 of his own money on his campaign, could pull an upset in this solidly Democratic district, where Democrats hold an 18 percentage point registration edge over Republicans. It was, after all, a low-turnout special election, and Hahn, a veteran Los Angeles City Council member, was, horror of horrors, a career pol.
But the Huey tsunami that was supposed to sweep over this coastal (Venice to San Pedro) district never materialized. When the votes were counted last night, Hahn won by a decisive 54.6 percent to 45.4 percent margin - a 9 point victory, hardly overwhelming, but more than good enough for a special election in which just 23 percent of the district's registered voters actually turned out.
There was never any prospect that Huey could have won the race on issues, particularly inasmuch as he opposed abortion rights and gay marriage in a district where Republicans have a libertarian bent. While Hahn's campaign trained its fire on Huey's positions on these social issues, Huey went after Hahn for the sin of career-pol-ism. The attack was so extreme, though, that it quickly skidded off the rails: An ad from a rightwing group that depicted Hahn as a stripper in league with gang members instantaneously and predictably backfired (all the more since Hahn's demeanor seems closer to that of a Norman Rockwell character than to a pole dancer's).
Hahn was able to outspend Huey with the considerable assistance of the L.A. labor movement, which also ran one of its classic get-out-the-vote operations in the southern, heavily working class, part of the district, abutting L.A. harbor. Labor's support may have been even more critical to Hahn in the first round of the election, when she and Huey bested Democrat Debra Bowen, California's secretary of state, to qualify for the top-two-finishers run-off. While the political differences between Hahn and Bowen were never very substantial, Hahn, as a local official close to labor, won all the union endorsements, and even though union membership in the northern part of the district isn't very large, the movement's support enabled her to come in first in a multi-candidate field.
Hahn will enter Congress as a mainstream Democrat - opposed to cuts to Social Security and Medicare, in favor of a quicker pullout from the Afghanistan war. She's also a member of L.A.'s only multi-generational political dynasty. Her father, the legendary Kenneth Hahn, served as one of L.A. County's five elected supervisors for 40 years, from 1952 to 1992, during which time his south-county district turned from white to black - a transition Hahn weathered brilliantly by his early support for Martin Luther King, Jr., and the then-fledgling civil rights movement, and by hiring and promoting a number of African Americans who went on to become the city's first generation of black elected officials. His son, Jim Hahn, was elected L.A. city attorney and then, in 2001, mayor. Jim, however, was always uncomfortable in the spotlight, and gave the impression that he was only in politics to fulfill his father's expectations - something that L.A. voters apparently figured out for themselves in 2005, when they denied Hahn re-election by voting for Antonio Villaraigosa. (Jim Hahn is now a judge.) The political genes in the Hahn family all went to Janet, who has always appeared far more comfortable and effusive in dealing with people than her shyer sibling.
Can Hahn hold this district? That's a harder question than it may seem, since the district - like every congressional and legislative district in the state - is soon to have its lines redrawn by an independent commission whose handiwork is hard to predict. It may end up more conservative than it currently is, with the addition of upscale Palos Verdes and the subtraction of leftwing Venice. Even so, you shouldn't bet on a Republican take-over of this seat, particularly if they nominate social conservatives like Huey, and particularly because, in Hahn, the Democrats have themselves one skilled pol.