Column: Once a regular GOP target, Rep. Scott Peters now may be untouchable for Republicans
Scott Peters was barely elected to Congress in a Republican-leaning district in 2012. In that election and others since, he has fended off challenges from the right.
The San Diego Democrat was thought to be a perennial GOP target, which was the case early on in his congressional tenure. But as his coastal-central district grew more Democratic, so did its voters’ embrace of the incumbent.
He has cruised through a few relatively easy elections, but this year’s was shaping up to be a more interesting, if not necessarily threatening one. Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey, a Republican, announced five months ago he was running for Peters’ seat and as of the end of the year said he had amassed more than $500,000 in campaign funds.
That potential high-profile matchup was short lived, however. Bailey recently withdrew from the race.
He told Deborah Sullivan Brennan of The San Diego Union-Tribune that he didn’t stand much of a chance now that the redistricting process had made the district even more Democratic. Political districts are realigned every decade following the national census.
The new district (which will change numbers from the 52nd to the 50th) continues to extend up the coast from Imperial Beach but after La Jolla shifts inland to the north, taking in portions of Escondido and San Marcos. Voter registration goes from a current 14 percent Democratic advantage to 18 percent.
Bailey expounded on his reason for dropping out of the race to the Coronado Eagle & Journal.
“The district boundaries surprised us and are entirely responsible for our decision to pull out of the race,” he said, suggesting bias in the nonpartisan California Citizens Redistricting Commission.
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“The first official draft map was published by the technical staff in early December, and it showed district boundaries that would’ve been very competitive for our campaign. However, once the political commissioners were allowed to change the boundaries within the draft maps, they did.”
The first tentative maps were actually released in early November for public input. While the proposed new 50th Congressional District didn’t have the same northern reach as the final version, the partisan breakdown was more heavily Democratic. The voter registration in the draft district was 45 percent Democratic, 21 percent Republican and 33 No Party Preference. In the approved district, it’s 42 percent Democratic, 24 percent Republican and 32 percent NPP.
Perhaps a better gauge is the Democratic Performance Index calculated by FiveThirtyEight, the political website. That’s based on voting history, not registration. The index shows the new 50th at plus-27 percent Democratic compared with plus-23 percent in the current 52nd.
In any case, all versions of the district — existing, initial revise and final approved version — seemed pretty safe for Peters. Bailey, it should be noted, announced he was running in August, well before any district maps had emerged.
Bailey didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.
For now, two little-known Democrats say they intend to run against Peters. The deadline to file for candidacy is March 11.
Peters’ path has not been as easy as it looks now. In the 2012 primary, he nudged ahead of former Democrat Assemblymember Lori Saldaña to advance to November. There, he defeated Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray by a hair in a district where the GOP had a 3 percent voter registration advantage. In another squeaker two years later, he beat back a challenge by Republican Carl DeMaio, radio talk show host and former San Diego City Council member.
For a while, Peters had been out of favor with then-Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi and gained the wrath of some labor groups for his position on trade issues.
But things have changed some. He has been backed by the local and national chambers of commerce, and now has broad labor support. After winning in a swing district and helping candidates win other ones, he has become one of Pelosi’s regional vice chairs for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
As for his current campaign, Peters said all elections provide “a serious chance to have a key talk with voters.” He said he already has reached out to potential new constituents in the San Marcos-Escondido area. He said the coronavirus pandemic, jobs, inflation, climate change and education seem to be at the top of voters’ minds. “I suspect that’s true across the county,” he said.
“My portfolio is everything San Diego plus climate (change),” he said, adding he helped deliver funds for the trolley, border ports of entry and facilities to stem sewage spills from Tijuana.
Peters took heat from many climate activists for not backing the sweeping Green New Deal. In addition to certain policy disagreements, he didn’t think it would pass. Instead, he has supported and authored numerous bills aimed at combating global warming.
Among them are successful bills to restrict methane emissions, phase out hydrofluorocarbons used in refrigeration and other “super pollutants” — greenhouse gases that are far more potent than carbon dioxide but have a shorter life.
One of his ongoing priorities in this area is getting the federal government to do more about wildfires, which both exacerbate climate change and contribute to it.
He voted for and has been promoting the $1.2 trillion infrastructure measure that he says will improve roads and transportation, increase broadband access and help clean up water supplies. Earlier, he also supported the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act to provide relief during the pandemic.
Peters also voted for the Build Back Better Act to provide funding for expanded social services, more infrastructure and climate change efforts. Peters and others say if a revamped deal on the stalled broad legislation can’t be reached, Democrats should consider breaking it up into packages that can pass.
Among those are overhauling the tax cuts signed by former President Donald Trump and legislation that Peters said would “punish people who cheat on their taxes.”
He also believes his legislation to cap prescription drug prices, which was part of Build Back Better, could succeed. He and a small handful of other Democrats blocked broader legislation backed by Pelosi, contending it would hurt investments in biotech companies and stymie research for new drugs.
Peters took a lot of criticism for that, especially because he received campaign contributions from pharmaceutical interests. Like other storms, he seems to have weathered that one.
Peters said he doesn’t think about the notion that he may be on the political easy street, or give much thought to his political trajectory.
“I never really had any expectations,” he said. “I really don’t know what’s going to happen next. I have a two-year contract.”