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Jewish World Review July 12, 2001 / 21 Tamuz, 5761

John H. Fund

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He's Still Bread: Despite what you've heard, Gary Condit isn't toast --- yet -- WITH Republicans holding a narrow 222-210 margin in the House, there is intense political interest when any competitive House seat looks to be up for grabs. The political vultures have been circling around Rep. Gary Condit for several days now, with some analysts saying the California Democrat is a goner and speculating that the seat will fall to the GOP in 2002. Don't bet on it.

Before Mr. Condit became this summer's Washington scandal, the heart of his district--the Central Valley town of Modesto--was best known as the setting for "American Graffiti," director George Lucas's 1973 homage to his teenage years in the 1950s. Modesto, which had only 35,000 people back in the '50s, has since become a bustling commuter suburb of over 220,000 people, many of whom were priced out of the San Francisco Bay Area real estate market.

The counties making up Mr. Condit's 18th District are ancestrally Democratic. Many residents are from families who came to California from the Dust Bowl, which devastated Texas and Oklahoma in the 1930s. But those Depression-era Democrats were conservative by today's standards, and many have defected to the GOP. Many of the newcomers lean Republican as well.

The area's Democratic leanings were strong enough that in 1972, when Richard Nixon won his 49-state landslide, Modesto's Stanislaus County favored Nixon over George McGovern by only 51% to 46%. But Bob Dole lost Mr. Condit's district by less than one percentage point in 1996, despite losing statewide by 13 points. Last year George W. Bush won the district solidly, 53% to 44%. True, Mr. Condit routinely wins by 2-to-1 or greater margins--but his voting record is the least liberal of any California Democrat.

Despite these favorable trends, savvy Republicans aren't convinced that Mr. Condit is politically dead. "He's not as weak as you'd think, " Rep. Tom Davis, head of the House Republican Campaign Committee, told me yesterday. "Only 45% of the district's voters think the coverage that Condit's gotten has been fair."

Mr. Davis was referring to the only known poll of 18th District voters taken recently. The NBC News/Zogby poll surveyed 568 likely voters on July 5, before Rep. Condit admitted to Washington police that he had an affair with missing intern Chandra Levy. Nonetheless, it suggests that Mr. Condit may have political life left in him.

The scandal has certainly taken a toll on his ratings. But only 54% of independent voters and only 38% of Democratic voters think any less of him for the Levy disappearance. The most harshly critical voters are Republicans, who aren't likely to vote for him anyway and make up only 38% of the district's registered voters.

There are other reasons why Mr. Condit is likely to continue his long silence on the scandal and could come back to win re-election next year.

The Clinton precedent During the Lewinsky scandal, Bill Clinton taught everyone the importance of sticking it out. Possessing little shame, Mr. Clinton figured that voters would eventually tire of the scandal and if the most explosive revelations could be delayed by several months the electorate would be able to absorb those without a sense of shock. Mr. Condit has little to fear in a Democratic primary and 16 months to let memories fade before he must face all of the district's voters again. This assumes, of course, that there are no other dramatic revelations, and in particular that nothing ties him to Ms. Levy's disappearance surfaces. The NBC News poll found that so far only 5% of his district's voters think he was involved in her disappearance.

Gerrymandering. Democrats know that Mr. Condit is the only candidate who could hold the district for them. They will swallow their doubts and back him to the hilt in September, when the state will draw new lines for its 53 House seats. Since Democrats control the entire process, you can bet they are already hunched over computer simulations figuring out how to transfer the minority voters of south Stockton to the Condit district. Look for Republican areas to be transferred to seats already held by the GOP.

Lack of opponents. You can't beat somebody with nobody, and the GOP bench in California isn't very deep, even in the conservative Central Valley. State Sen. Dick Monteith represents much of the Condit district and would be a strong candidate, but he is on record as saying he will run only if Mr. Condit isn't a candidate.

On the other hand, there is one surprise Republican candidate who might give Gary Condit a run for his money. Kate Nyegaard, a 64-year-old business manager from Modesto, is the sister of the apolitical George Lucas and has been a delegate to national Republican conventions. She also has political experience. In 1982, she ran and lost a fairly close race to an ambitious Democrat who was running in his first race for the California Legislature. His name? Gary Condit. Perhaps she'd like to even the score.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


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©2001, John H. Fund