Pelosi Challenger John Dennis Has Bigger Goals
Mounting his third straight bid to unseat Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, John Dennis likes to jest that if he and his fellow San Francisco Republicans were a species, they would be on the endangered list.
“If there were so few Republicans in nature [as there are in San Francisco], we wouldn’t be able to reproduce,” the real estate investor told RealClearPolitics. “We’d be on the verge of extinction.”
Jokes aside, the New Jersey native and 23-year resident of the Bay Area is serious about his campaign, the issues he wants to raise, and his vision for the GOP -- despite the mammoth odds against him. An unconventional Republican by national party standards, Dennis holds strong libertarian views (he is no fan of foreign aid, for example). He is also defiant about political labels and the connotations they typically entail.
The GOP trademark is something Dennis accepts, but he points to what he sees as unfair residual negativity that Republicans in San Francisco receive.
“The sins of the national party fall really hard on districts like ours,” he said. “It’s unfortunate because we have a lot to add to the local political scene and we’re just virtually ignored.”
Given the state’s political fingerprint, many Republicans in California likely feel that way too. Despite periodic swings toward the GOP, it has trended strongly Democratic in recently history. New figures show that voter rolls are 43.5 percent Democratic vs. 29 percent Republican (with the ranks of Independents swelling). The governor, both senators, and 38 of the 53 House members are Democrats.
The divide is even more pronounced in progressive San Francisco. Dennis says some of the people he meets at parties are shocked to learn of his political affiliation, telling him, “Oh, you seem like a nice person.” Indeed, such prejudices are common in the City by the Bay, where the last GOP mayor left office half a century ago and less than 9 percent of the voters are registered Republicans.
As bleak as the outlook may be for the man who was crushed by Pelosi in California’s 8th Congressional District in 2010 and again after it became the 12th District in 2012, he’s nonetheless regarded as a strong candidate by fellow party members.
“John’s got a good message,” county Republican Central Committee Chair Harmeet Dhillon told RCP. “He’s a professional.”
Howard Epstein, a former Democrat and Ronald Reagan convert who also serves on the Central Committee, looks favorably on Dennis too.
“In the past we’ve put candidates in there just to show face, to show Republicans are still here and so on,” he said in an interview. “But this time now, since John’s been running, we have somebody who’s serious about it.”
Bill Bowen, another central committee member and someone who talked to Dennis about taking on the House minority leader for a third time, praises the candidate’s professional background: “John being a business guy, [that] is a plus for a city that’s kind of undergoing an economic boom.”
Despite all this support, Dennis is not without opposition within the local GOP. Asked about his prospects, Dana Walsh, who lost to Pelosi in 2008, references Dennis’ comment to her two years later. “My advice to [him] is the same advice he gave me when he first ran in 2010: ‘When you’ve run and lost, you should step aside and let someone else run,’” Walsh told RCP in an email.
“John has now run in two elections,” Walsh further noted. “Perhaps he should take his own advice.” (Indeed, Dennis showed only marginal improvement in his 2012 race against Pelosi compared to 2010, jumping from 31,711 votes to 44,478 but was still dwarfed by the overwhelming support for the incumbent. She secured 85.1 percent of the votes the last time out, continuing a long run of blowout victories since narrowly winning a special election for the seat in 1987.)
Dennis said his remarks were in reference to Walsh’s own poor showing on Election Day: She came in third to Pelosi and anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, who ran as an independent. “[You] ran and performed pretty badly,” he said he told her. By running again, “nothing is going to change.”
Another Republican -- Curtis Davies -- is also running in the June 3 primary, although Epstein said the San Francisco Republican Party will likely endorse Dennis when it meets next month.
When originally contacted about the race by RCP, Davies invoked Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Thou shall not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” As such, the hotel investment real estate adviser said he would rather focus on his own campaign -- which he officially launched on Thursday -- than comment on Dennis’s.
Davies later said he hopes to gain the endorsement of Rudy Giuliani, something that would separate him somewhat from Dennis, given the former New York mayor’s hawkish stance on national security. (Dennis has previously received support from former Rep. Ron Paul, a fellow libertarian who was at odds with Giuliani when defense issues were debated during the 2008 Republican presidential campaign.)
RCP's attempts to reach Giuliani for comment were not immediately successful.
Bay Area Republicans have a larger issue to worry about than any back-and-forth between GOP candidates past and present. That issue is the primary itself: For the second straight election cycle, California is operating under an open primary system. All candidates, regardless of party affiliation, run on the same ballot to determine the two top contenders for the general election. As such, Pelosi could face-off against some other Democrat.
“It’s really a terrible idea,” Epstein said of the system, which he believes could create a lack of debate on important issues.
Dennis is unfazed, however, insisting that “no serious Democrat will run against Pelosi.”
His concerns are instead related to shaping the future of the Republican Party. He hopes to do so by, paradoxically, zeroing in on its past, particularly the era of non-interventionist foreign policy that was reframed by conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr.
“If you go back to the pre-Buckley days in the Republican Party, the Old Right positions were pretty close to where I am,” said the upstart candidate.
During his first congressional bid, Dennis’ commitment to that stance prompted his call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. That, in turn, helped endear him to 2008 Green Party vice-presidential nominee (and San Franciscan) Matt Gonzalez, who remains a supporter.
Gonzalez is intrigued by Dennis’ position on civil liberties and what he deems “American imperialism.”
“There’s been a long tradition in radical politics where the left and the right can sometimes find points of agreement,” he told RCP. “For now, I want to highlight those points of agreement.” He also praised Dennis for “injecting a very high degree of understanding and knowledge on contemporary issues.”
The candidate himself has few illusions about his prospects of defeating Pelosi, pointing to apathy within the district despite what he considers the congresswoman’s less than stellar record on issues that typically matter to liberals.
“She has a thread, a long history of completely disregarding . . . civil liberties in her own constituency and in Americans in general,” Dennis asserted. “People just don’t pay attention.”
Among the examples he cites is Pelosi’s vote against defunding the NSA domestic surveillance program, something that was a prime motivator in his decision to challenge her once more.
He is equally impassioned about Pelosi’s longstanding unavailability to publicly debate opponents. She last did so in a 1994 radio broadcast with Republican challenger Elsa Cheung.
Gonzalez echoes Dennis’ displeasure, saying that debate is “a very fundamental thing that you want in a democracy” and asserting that Pelosi’s refusal smacks of “arrogance.”
(The minority leader’s office did not respond to RCP’s requests for comment on this story.)
Dennis faces two other huge obstacles: fundraising, and the largely intractable advantage incumbents have given district gerrymandering. As for the former, Pelosi routinely generates well over $2 million for her re-election campaigns, while Dennis pulled in a relatively meager $453,400 in his last run.
Nonetheless, he is undeterred. He’s writing a book about the need to develop a new urban agenda for the GOP, something he believes would be a “blueprint” for how the party can appeal to progressive voters.
“If the Republican Party can start solving the problems in the cities, then they can start solving the problems of how they’re going to succeed nationally,” he said.
Contributing to the national conversation on at least a small scale and maybe even “correcting the course” of his party and country are what motivate Dennis.
“I think it’s my mission,” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reversed the number of Democrats vs. Republicans in California's congressional delegation.