by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
November 15, 2004
HOUSE RULES COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN SURVIVES TALK SHOW'S 'HUMAN SACRIFICE'
LOS ANGELES, nOV. 15, 2004 -- It was a populist dream come true. The effort pf two talk show hosts to unseat Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) was presented to the voters of his district as a chance to rise up and defeat a comfortably entrenched politician who had strayed from the fold. The plan ultimately failed, but the margin was surprisingly narrow, considering the district and the candidate's previous track record.
A little background: The John and Ken radio show on KFI (AM 640, Los Angeles) has been described here in earlier columns. John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou are clearly conservative, but they also have a certain independent eccentricity that causes them to deviate from the party line occasionally.
For example, back when Arianna Huffington's husband Michael was running as the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate against Diane Feinstein, "John and Ken" (as they are called) sarcastically referred to him as "Michael Nothington." Huffington went on to lose narrowly in spite of the fact that it was a strong Republican year.
John and Ken are impatient, to put it mildly, with the everyday compromises that politicians make to get elected and once elected, to remain in office. The issue they have been most impatient about of late is the failure by government to enforce laws against illegal immigration.
You might say they are obsessive about the topic. It was one of their hot-button issues during the recall campaign against Gov. Gray Davis and their crusade continues.
In the months before the election, they made a concerted effort to get Republican politicians on the air to sign on to the John and Ken agenda, namely to support strong state and federal laws against illegal immigration and to make sure such laws are enforced.
In California, this is a political hot potato. The demographics have been changing here, and the newly enfranchised Latino voters have not been kind to the Republican Party.
In 2004, the Bush re-election campaign didn't even bother to put up a fight for California, and Sen. Kerry cruised to a clear victory.
California Republicans were badly burned by reaction against Gov. Pete Wilson's support for anti-immigrant Prop. 187. As a result, the Republicans have been avoiding the topic recently. President Bush has gone even further, supporting a legalization program that resembles another amnesty program. In the 2004 election season, fighting illegal immigration was clearly not a high priority issue as far as the national parties were concerned.
And this is where the whole David Dreier "political human sacrifice" story begins.
John and Ken were only moderately successful in luring political candidates to join them on the air. Part of the reason is that elected officeholders have been abused mightily by these two in the past, so there is a certain legitimate wariness about walking into the proverbial lion's den (see, for example, Songs of Treason Fill the Air.
Then John and Ken came up with the idea they call "Political Human Sacrifice." They held a contest in which listeners were invited to pick one Republican to defeat in this year's election.
The idea was simple - that by sacrificing one of the party faithful over the immigration issue, the rest of the party would get the message and fall dutifully in line. You can read about it on the KFI Website (KFI640.com).
The "victim" finally chosen was Congressman Drier, a longtime Member of the House from a safe Republican district. He also happens to be chairman of the House Rules Committee, a position of considerable power and indicative of significant esteem within the party apparatus.
To pretend to some nonpartisan balance, they also added a Democrat, Joe Baca to the victim list, but it was clear that Baca was always the secondary target. Dreier was the big game.
They went to work on Dreier. They drummed up listener opposition to his reelection and explained why Dreier's 26th district voters should vote for his opponent, Democrat Cynthia Matthews. They suggested that should Matthews win, the voters would probably replace her with a Republican at the next election, but it would surely be an anti-immigration Republican.
Matthews played along, appearing on the radio with John and Ken, taking calls from listeners, and showed up at public rallies the station hosted.
The idea was a neo-populist fantasy. A couple of rabble-rousers with a hot microphone and a big audience would incite their audience of conservative voters to defeat a politician who failed their litmus test. To the politically obsessive, the little everyday compromises that politicians make as part of the legislative process (not to mention the reelection process) are not to be tolerated.
It was also a man-bites-dog story come to life: talk radio conservatives endorsing a Democrat. But do talk radio hosts really have as much influence as we may think? Or do voters ignore them, too?
Election day came and went, and the question of what the "political human sacrifice" did or did not accomplish is worthy of consideration. Viewing the results, you might think that two different elections had taken place. Dreier won comfortably, as always, but John and Ken crowed about their spectacular victory.
The actual results suggest something in between.
Dreier ran up 127,770 votes (as of the most recent count, essentially complete but not yet officially certified), equal to 53.9 percent of the total. His opponent received 101,258 votes, for a 42.6 percent share. It was an 11-point victory, certainly worthy of a snort or two out of the celebratory champagne bottle in most any district.
John and Ken, on the other hand, consider the result to be a great victory and have been insufferable as they brag about how they almost got Dreier unseated.
Here's the gist of it. In the previous election in 2002, Dreier received 95,360 votes for a winning margin of 63.8 percent. This time, he only received 53.9 percent of the total. The 2002 election was an easy blowout victory. This year's election is a clear cut victory, but not quite a landslide. But Sen. John Kerry ran 10 points ahead of President Bush in the state, so the Democrat's coattails could well have been responsible for a poorer showing.
It is hard to make comparisons because of redistricting between the 2000 and 2002 elections. Just for comparison, in 1998 and 2000, Dreier received 57.6 percent and 56.9 percent of the votes, respectively, in a district that had a slightly lower Republican voter registration than the former district.
It all depends on how you look at things. Aside from that 2002 election (which was a blowout, but in a year of small voter turnout), Dreier has been increasing his vote total consistently. His 127,770 vote total this year certainly compares favorably to the 90,607 he received in 1998, the 116,557 he got in 2000, or the 95,360 he got in 2002.
The excuse that John and Ken have for bragging is that Dreier only received that paltry 53.9 percent this time around. In the adjacent 25th district, the Republican incumbent received 65.0 percent of the votes and in the nearby 41st district, the Republican incumbent waltzed to an easy 83.2 percent victory.
On the other hand, in the adjacent 29th and 32nd istricts, Democratic incumbents also danced the dance of easy victory with 64.7 percent and 85.0 percent of the votes, respectively.
John and Ken also brag that Dreier had to work for this victory, in that he had to raise and spend more on this campaign than he has in any other recent year. Their message is that Dreier spent more and got a lower percentage of the votes compared to earlier years, and this was due to their efforts.
Perhaps it all comes down to the fact that comfortably entrenched incumbents who face opponents lacking cash and name recognition usually win big without trying very hard. Contested elections are going to be closer. The 2004 results are consistent with this logic. Dreier's opponent got over a hundred thousand votes, something no Dreier opponent in recent memory has been anywhere near achieving, but Dreier matched and surpassed his previous high-vote totals of the previous decade.
In a Nov. 7 piece in the Los Angeles Times entitled "John and Ken Who?", Gregory Rodriguez summarized his views:
The talkers left no doubt that they intended their blustery show of political "muscle" to strike fear into candidates' hearts. And to the attention-seeking provocateurs' credit, Republicans did lunge at the bait by trying to persuade the Federal Elections Commission that the on-air rants violated campaign finance laws. But, ultimately, pumped-up jaw muscles aren't all that intimidating or effective, and on election day, after months of being harangued at rallies and on KFI, Baca and Dreier easily reclaimed their seats.
It all depends on how you look at, I suppose. The point that John and Ken are making is that they made Dreier work for his victory, and due to their efforts, it was a lot closer than it otherwise would have been. Any reasonable analysis of the election results shows that in this, at least, they are right.
To this I would add, but so what?
The great Vince Lombardy line, "Winning isn't everything - it's the only thing," is even truer in politics than it is in athletics.
Whether you win or lose your next tennis game, you'll still benefit from the exercise. David Dreier's opponent in the 2004 election does not get to vote in the next session of the congress. Dreier does. Next election season, Dreier will come better prepared with a substantial war chest and will, once again, win easily as he has been doing for nearly three decades.
In some ways, it is a shame that the sort of popular uprising dreamed of by idealists fell flat. If a mediocre politician cannot be unseated over a hot-button issue like this, what chance do we have to unseat congressmen who raise huge campaign war chests by kissing up to corporate lobbyists? On the other hand, at least for this one moment, the rudeness that rules the talk-radio dial was ignored by voters, who had the final say.