Republicans can’t compete in Henry Waxman’s district. Everyone knows that. Someone would have to be either stupid or crazy to try. But Elan Carr is neither stupid nor crazy, so there must be something else going on in California’s 33rd Congressional District. He actually is competing to replace the retiring Democratic icon. What’s more, he’s winning.
Carr’s first-place finish in June’s jungle primary, where the top two candidates, regardless of party, advance to the November general election, forced naysayers to take notice. And he’s brimming with confidence.
“Do I know what’s going to happen?” Carr asks at Urth Caffe near his home in Beverly Hills. “No one can predict the future. But one thing I can say with absolute certainty is this is a competitive race and we have a very, very good shot of winning.”
It’ll be tough, but Carr has never shied from a challenge. He spends his days prosecuting gangs in Los Angeles. In the Army, he led an antiterrorism team in Iraq and prosecuted those who had committed crimes against the United States. He didn’t back down from the threat of religious persecution when he started regular Jewish services for American service members in Iraq—in one of Saddam’s old palaces, of all places. And he’s not afraid to speak what he believes is the truth, even if it’s unpopular within his party.
He says his two biggest issues are education and the economy. He advocates using the federal power of the purse to persuade states to perform better educationally and exercising strong U.S. leadership abroad. But on other issues, like immigration and health care, he strays at times from the party’s national rhetoric.
“I say deport all the people who have criminal records,” he says of undocumented immigrants. “But those people who are law-abiding, decent, patriotic Americans, why wouldn’t we embrace them and welcome them when we are the ones who didn’t secure our borders?”
Porous borders are “an attractive nuisance,” says Carr. “You want to get serious? Get serious with the border. Close the border, and then you can posture if someone goes through the tremendous effort to dig a tunnel under the border.”
He sees the worst of illegal immigration on a daily basis. He mentions that the defendant in a recent murder trial that he prosecuted had been deported only to come back and shoot the victim in the face twice. Another case involved a defendant who had been deported seven times prior to being prosecuted for “violence against a police officer.”
But he also points out that the person who trained him in the military is the son of illegal immigrants, and invokes the spirit of Ronald Reagan, who embraced immigration reform.
“Everyone talks about Ronald Reagan as the patron saint of the modern Republican party,” says Carr. “He was inclusive, and open, and brought people in and created the kind of American coalition that we haven’t seen before or since.”
He has taken a fix-it position on Obamacare. Influenced heavily by his wife, who has a private medical practice in the district, he says that low reimbursement rates to doctors and higher premiums are making it difficult for people to get insurance, or insurance that their doctor accepts. But he adds that he would not vote for a straight repeal if sent to Washington—that there have already been too many votes, that “enough is enough.”
He expresses an interest in reaching across the aisle, not surprising considering he’s running in an overwhelmingly Democratic district in one of the most liberal states.
Politicians often pay lip service when campaigning. But of the two political contributions Carr has made in his lifetime, according to FEC records, one was to Rep. Eliot Engel, D-NY, in 2012 (the other was to the Senate campaign of Josh Mandel in Ohio). Carr said that, along with chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce, Engel is one of his heroes.
“I don’t agree with him on a lot of issues,” says Carr. “I pick heroes based on courage. When he doesn’t agree with the administration, he stands up and calls [Obama] on it.”
Carr’s departures from party orthodoxy might make him an atypical candidate, but that hasn’t stopped the endorsements. Royce, House Oversight and Government Reform chairman Darrell Issa, and former majority leader Eric Cantor, among others, have expressed support.
“I see a good candidate,” said California GOP chairman Jim Brulte. “He is a very good prosecutor. He represents that area very well, in terms of his biography.”
Carr says education is his primary issue, but he seems most passionate when discussing foreign policy, especially Israel. He has a foreign policy pedigree, from his time in the Army, and from his Iraqi and Israeli heritage. When his mother was 9, she and her brother fled with their mother from Iraq to Israel shortly after the creation of that state, while her father sat in prison. Carr speaks fluent Hebrew and Arabic.
“We can’t protect people here at home unless we exercise leadership overseas,” he says. “We are conducting a foreign policy of such confusion, of such weakness, such lack of relevance to world affairs. Not only are we in greater danger because of it, but Israel is in grievous danger. When America isn’t exerting its influence in the world, things don’t get better.”
He’s running against a strong candidate in Democrat Ted Lieu, who has been in the state senate since 2011, after serving in both the state assembly and Torrance City Council. Lieu was outraising and outspending Carr—until now.
FEC filings from mid-July showed Carr actually beat Lieu both in contributions for the second quarter, $454,874 to $360,239, and cash on hand, $245,822 to $204,438.
But dollars don’t cast ballots on Election Day. Democrats have a substantial advantage in voter registration, 43 percent to 27 percent, and Lieu has greater name identification.
Even so, Carr points to Henry Waxman’s tough road to reelection in 2012 as a reason for optimism. Against the Republican-turned-no-party-preference candidate Bill Bloomfield, Waxman won by only 8 points, 54-46. And that was with Obama at the top of the ticket, who won the district by 24 points.
Carr “has some of the attributes that, in just the right setting, with everything falling just right, someone like that would have a chance,” says Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at CSU Los Angeles.
Sonenshein notes that Carr’s first-place finish in the primary is somewhat misleading, since there were several Democratic candidates splitting the vote—the top four left-leaning candidates together got 61 percent of the vote—and Lieu isn’t seriously flawed in a way that would give an easy opening. Plus, Republicans are not very popular in the district.
“But,” says Sonenshein, “it’s a district with a very strong Jewish population, which leans heavily Democratic. By virtue of being Jewish and also presumably socially moderate enough for the district,” Carr will at least earn consideration from voters. “Without that, I don’t even think he’s in the discussion.”
The seat is likely to remain Democratic, said Sonenshein. The political handicappers, like Sabato’s Crystal Ball and Cook Political Report agree. But there’s still a chance. “It’s a longshot,” says Sonenshein. “But it’s not an impossibility.”
The ever-confident Carr places his odds of victory at over 50 percent: “If we stick to our game plan and campaign as our polls show we need to, and if we have the resources, I’m the favorite candidate.”
Matthew Fleming is a reporter for the Los Angeles Register.