Almost immediately after last November's election, Democrats targeted an Inland Empire Congressional seat won by Republican Gary Miller. He's being called the most vulnerable Republican incumbent in Congress and a big Democratic political action committee has endorsed Redlands Mayor Pete Aguilar to replace Miller next year. That leaves former Democratic Congressman Joe Baca, who represented Inland voters for 14 years but who lost his re-election bid last year, without party backing.
Miller is a Republican representing the 31st District, a solidly Democratic seat in which about half the population is Latino. The district extends from Upland and Rancho Cucamonga east to Redlands. It includes San Bernardino, Grand Terrace, Rialto, Colton and parts of neighboring communities.
Redistricting caused Miller to seek this seat to avoid running against a fellow GOP incumbent in his former district. Miller won the 31st last year after Democrats splintered their primary votes and failed to get a candidate into the general election.
Patrick Griffin, associate director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, says the Democrats won't make that mistake again. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has a large war chest, endorsed Aguilar early in the race.
"The leadership decided that a newer face with maybe new energy and less baggage is the one that has the best chance of taking on Miller," Griffin said. "And I think that's what they're betting on."
Griffin said the endorsement was meant to give Aguilar a leg up in taking on Miller.
"They wanted to get broad based support behind the most likely candidate to win in the general as early as they can to kind of discourage other Democrats from getting in," Griffin said.
But that hasn't stopped Baca, who lost his seat last year to fellow Democrat Gloria Negrete McLeod, a former state legislator. Also in the race is Democratic attorney Eloise Gomez-Reyes, who's been endorsed by Emily's List, a Super PAC that promotes women candidates.
After recently giving a speech to Rancho Cucamonga retirees at a seniors center, Miller said the race among Democrats seeking to unseat him is wide-open.
"I don't see a front-runner," Miller said. "I see a woman backed by Emily's List. I see Pete Aguilar backed by the Democratic establishment, and I see Joe Baca working for the vote of the people, so I'm not going to call it."
Miller insisted he's not as vulnerable as Democrats make him out to be.
"I just won this district when I was a top-five target of the Democrats in a presidential year that the Democrats controlled," Miller said. "I think I'm a good fit for my district."
Miller dismissed Aguilar as too inexperienced.
"I'm not impugning Pete Aguilar at all," Miller said. "I'm saying he's dealt with [governing] from the city level. There's a huge difference between the city council and the state legislature, and there's an enormous difference between the state legislature and Congress."
Aguilar discounts the experience argument. He has been on the Redlands city council since 2006 and was selected by other council members to be their mayor.
"I think people in our community, people in the Inland Empire, are looking for fresh faces and fresh ideas," said Aguilar in a recent interview. "Washington DC is broken. Sending the same people back there and expecting a different result just doesn't work."
He also said that Miller's enforcement-oriented views on immigration are out of step with the local population. Miller's previous terms in Congress were in a district that included parts of Orange County.
Generally, the Democratic party stays out of primary elections, but in a strategy it calls "Jumpstart," the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chose a handful of candidates to support early in Republican-held districts.
"The DCCC is supportive of my candidacy," Aguilar said. "We're excited to have them, as well as local elected officials, local community leaders, Senator [Dianne] Feinstein — those are folks who believe that we represent the values that we have here in the Inland Empire."
Aguilar wasn't willing to say how much he will need to raise to be competitive with Miller, but says having that party endorsement is helpful.
"We outraised two members of Congress — we're proud of that," Aguilar said.
The other member of Congress he referred to is Baca, who had represented Inland since 1999 until his upset loss last year. He vowed a comeback and is making that attempt in a different district. But he's not happy that his party has endorsed Aguilar.
"Pete has no experience," Baca charged. "Bottom line, he's never served in Congress. He's only served as the elected official in Redlands."
Baca is counting on person-to-person contact and his name ID to overcome Aguilar's endorsements and cash. He's got $80,000 in his campaign account, far less than the $300,000 that Miller and Aguilar have each raised. Gomez-Reyes has about $200,000 in her account, though half of that is from a personal loan.
On a recent weekday, Baca was at a brunch for a youth services group. He wore a polo shirt from a Congressional golf tournament, with his Congressional pin in the collar. He was introduced as "Congressman Joe."
When a Riverside resident congratulated Baca on his 14-year tenure in Congress, he didn't correct her misimpression that he's still in office.
If either Baca or Miller wins the election, the district's representative would be among the 100 most-senior ranking members of Congress — a status that can translate into perks for the district. Aguilar, if elected, would start at the bottom rung.