A nine-term Republican congressman from California is in danger of losing his seat -- long considered 'safe' -- in a primary battle with an Iraq war veteran.
John Doolittle, who has been in office since 1991, represents a largely rural district in northern California that stretches from the Oregon border to just north of Sacramento. But his association with the Jack Abramoff bribery scandal has put his seat into play.
In September, Doolittle was served a Justice Department subpoena for 11 years of records as part of the Abramoff investigation. Two of his staffers have already testified in front of a federal grand jury, and his house in Virginia was raided earlier this year by the FBI in connection with the Abramoff probe.
Doolittle has estimated that he received about $50,000 from lobbyist Abramoff clients, mostly Indian tribes, and Abramoff hired a consulting firm owned by Doolittleís wife.
While Doolittle has vowed to fight the Justice Department subpoena, there is good reason to worry that he might not be able hold onto his seat.
Unseating Doolittle in the primary has attracted the quiet support of national GOP figures, according to Republican candidate Eric Egland, a counterterrorism consultant and intelligence officer in the military reserves. Egland has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and founded the Troops Need You program, which hooks up U.S. donors with battalions overseas to provide equipment they need.
"What's been amazing in this race is how top professionals have reached out to me," said Egland, 37. "My opponent has gotten himself into a lot of trouble and he's become a face of Republican scandal nationwide. I'm getting support from party faithful."
Egland delivered a keynote address at the National Federation of Republican Women conference in Palm Springs in September.
Doolittle also faces a primary challenge from Mike Holmes, mayor of Auburn, Calif., who lost to Doolittle in the 2006 primary. Holmes retired from the Navy in 1994 and worked in education and government after returning to Auburn. Other candidates are also said to considering a run for the GOP nod.
So far, Doolittle's campaign has focused its energy on defeating Democratic challenger Charlie Brown in the general election, rather than on an intra-party primary battle. In a September telephone news conference, Doolittle announced, "I will not step aside. I am running again. Period."
In 2006, Brown ran an under-funded campaign yet came within three points of unseating the long-time incumbent amid widespread national Republican losses. Now that Brown is running again, a September 2007 poll conducted by the Republican polling firm of Wilson Research Strategies found that he would trounce Doolittle by 20 points.
Despite the trouble surrounding his campaign, Doolittle insisted it was a mistake to draw comparisons between 2006 and 2008.
"I believe this next election is going to be entirely different," he said. "You're going to have everyone with an ounce of conservative blood or Republican blood in their veins turn out to make sure Hillary Clinton does not become the next president of the United States."
But the scandal issue remains sensitive among Republicans. Exit polling after the 2006 Congressional elections showed that scandal and dissatisfaction over the Iraq war were top concerns among voters, who handed control of both the House and Senate to Democrats. Karl Rove publicly blamed the GOP's losses on scandal.
"People know if we don't clean our own house regarding scandal-ridden incumbents, the Democrats will clean our clocks," Egland says. "We'll put a far-left voice in Washington."
According to Egland, Doolittle is hoping for a crowded Republican primary slate because he is more likely to win if the protest vote is split among Republican challengers ñ leaving it up to the general election to decide if he can overcome the taint of scandal that surrounds his office.
Democrat Brown promises to be a formidable candidate the second time around, even in this Republican-leaning 4th congressional district. As of June 2007, he had raised more money than Doolittle and generated local and national interest in his campaign.
According to Brown, the election will hinge on several issues, including the Iraq war, which remains unpopular and continues to drag down approval ratings of both President Bush and the Democratic-led Congress.
"Nationally, we have the war, health care and the economy," Brown says. "Locally, the economy is an issue, which includes the forests and managing the environment so people can make a living and still attract tourists."
Brown is an unlikely Democratic -- he was a Republican for most of his life, and his mother was an officer in the Iowa Republican Party. He served in Saudi Arabia and his son has done four tours of duty in Iraq.
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