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Jon Fleischman

VCStar: McKeon’s retirement triggers spirited race for his vacant seat

This article appears in tomorrow’s Ventura County Star.  Since the reporter, Timm Herdt, quoted yours truly, I’m hauling it out from behind the Star’s paywall… Find the original here.

McKeon’s retirement triggers spirited race for his vacant seat

By Timm Herdt, The Ventura County Star

Moments after Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon announced Thursday that he is stepping down at the end of this year, the race to succeed him immediately kicked into gear.

The respected Rothenberg Political Report changed its evaluation of the district from “safe Republican” to “Republican favored,” the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee issued a statement saying McKeon’s retirement “puts yet another Republican-held seat into reach for Democrats,” and a potentially bruising primary matchup between two high-profile Republicans began to take shape.

Former Sen. Tony Strickland of Moorpark and current Sen. Steve Knight of Palmdale have previously said they intended to run for the seat should McKeon decide to retire.

McKeon’s spokeswoman said the congressman is endorsing Strickland and “will work with Tony to be of whatever help he can be.”

In addition to Strickland and Knight, potential candidates to succeed McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, in the 25th Congressional District include Democrats Lee Rogers, the Simi Valley podiatrist who lost to McKeon in 2012, and retired Air Force officer and test pilot Evan “Ivan” Thomas of Lancaster.

The Republican candidates chose to hold their fire for the time being on Thursday, in deference to McKeon. Strickland issued a statement saying he would formally announce his intentions soon, adding, “Today should be about Chairman McKeon and honoring his record of service to our nation.”

Matt Rexroad, strategist for the Knight campaign, said the Antelope Valley senator “wants to focus on recognizing congressman McKeon right now.”

The Democratic candidates, while also praising McKeon for his service, were less restrained.

“It’s absolutely more competitive now,” said Rogers. “Any time you’re not running against an incumbent, you’re running on a more even footing.”

Thomas said that while he is thankful for McKeon’s service, “My opinion is that he overstayed his time in Congress. It’s certainly time to have representation that is more focused on the district.”

The 25th District includes the Antelope, Santa Clarita and Simi Valleys, as well as portions of the San Fernando Valley. About 19 percent of its voters live in Simi Valley, the only portion of Ventura County in the district.

Analysts say that while the district still favors Republicans, changing demographics have had a political impact on the area.

“The district is trending Democratic, no doubt about it,” said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which analyzes district-level politics around the state. “I would classify it right now as ‘strongly Republican,’ but not quite safe. A lot will depend on how bitter the fight is between Knight and Strickland.”

There are early indications that the fight could be intense. Strickland, who lost to Democratic Rep. Julia Brownley in the neighboring, Ventura County-based 26th District in 2012, has been raising money for an encore congressional run for a full year. He at first again listed the 26th District as his 2014 target, but changed course months ago.

Strickland starts out with a huge fundraising lead — he had more than $400,000 in the bank as of Oct. 1 — as well as the support of the incumbent, a strong base of grass-roots support built up over previous campaigns, a reputation as a tireless campaigner and prodigious fundraiser, and a long-standing close relationship with House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield.

Although Strickland grew up in Simi Valley and was a high school basketball standout there, he now lives a few miles outside the district, in Moorpark. That fact was pointedly made in a headline on the Santa Clarita Valley News website Thursday: “McKeon Announces Retirement; Endorses Non-District Resident.”

Jon Fleischman, publisher of the influential conservative blog the, was the first to publicly report McKeon’s impending retirement, in a blog post last April. He said Thursday that Strickland could face a stiff challenge.

“Tony Strickland is a friend of mine,” he said. “But he will have a hard time running against somebody as well respected as Sen. Steve Knight, especially since he does not live in that congressional seat.”

The Constitution does not require that members of House of Representatives reside in their districts.

Knight, a former Los Angeles police officer, became a state senator just last year. Since he is the middle of his term, he does not risk losing his seat by running for higher office.

His family name is well known throughout the Antelope Valley; he is the son of the late William J. “Pete” Knight, an Air Force test pilot who set world airspeed records and later was elected to the state Senate. As a senator, the elder Knight was best known for sponsoring an initiative to bar same-sex marriages in California.

Steve Knight has already secured the support of much of the district’s GOP establishment, picking up endorsements from such current and former elected officials as Ventura County Supervisor Peter Foy of Simi Valley, Assemblyman Scott Wilk of Santa Clarita and former Sens. George and Sharon Runner of Lancaster.

Rexroad, the Sacramento-based consultant to Knight’s campaign, acknowledged that Strickland’s head start in fundraising gives him an early advantage, with the primary now less than five months away.

“Tony Strickland is a good fundraiser by any measure,” he said. “You’ve got to give him credit for that.”

On the Democratic side, Rogers holds a clear early lead in finances. As of Oct. 1, his campaign had $181,000 in cash on hand. Thomas acknowledged that he got a late start on his campaign and his fundraising is “not where I’d like it to be.”