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How Did Eric Swalwell Beat Pete Stark And What's Next?

Swalwell took advantage of a number of factors to win his seat in Congress. Maybe none more so than California's new top-two primary system.

Just over a year ago, Eric Swalwell picked up the phone and called his long-time friend TJ Daly. He had a question.

"What do you think about me running for Congress?"

"You're crazy," Daly replied.

But the discussion continued and what initially seemed nuts — challenging and ultimately beating a 20-term congressman — started to seem possible. On Tuesday night, that possibility turned into a reality.

The Dublin city councilmember will leave his current seat for another in the U.S. House of Representatives.

At 31 years of age, Swalwell, with help from his campaign manager Daly, defeated fellow Democrat Rep. Pete Stark, who had been in Congress since 1972. With all the precincts reporting, Swalwell won 53.1 percent of the vote to Stark's 46.9.

What made Swalwell believe he could knock off Stark?

Most importantly, he realized sooner than most that California's new way of electing congressional representatives — with the top-two finishers in the primary competing in the general election — left incumbents vulnerable in a way they have never been before.

"I thought the open primary system and the new district would be a real game-changer," Swalwell said. "It was going to be a different type of election that Stark hadn't had in the past. He could no longer talk to just one part of the political spectrum. You would need a broad coalition of support to win."

The newly drawn 15th congressional district certainly helped. Stretching from San Ramon down to Fremont and eastward past Livermore, the district is heavily Democratic (about a 2-1 party registration advantage over Republicans), but less so than Stark's old 13th congressional district.

With Stark being one of the most liberal Democrats in Congress, Swalwell saw an opportunity to sell himself as the lesser of two evils to conservative voters.

Swalwell was also assisted by some of Stark's mistakes in the campaign. The longtime lawmaker made outlandish accusations in the primary campaign — claiming Swalwell was taking bribes was one — that Stark had to later apologize for.

But Swalwell still had to overcome Stark's name recognition, which he chipped away at by going to dozens of public events and knocking on doors throughout the distrct.

"In the last 14 months, we have talked to everyone, everywhere in the different communities," Swalwell said. "We wanted to show that we will do the work the people expect in Congress."

Though Swalwell was well positioned politically and worked tirelessly to get his name out there, he still needed to do what any candidate must if they want to win national office — raise money. With help from his buddy Daly, who has a background in fundraising, the campaign raised just under $800,000, keeping his financial disadvantage to Stark somewhat close. (As of Oct. 17, Stark's campaign had spent about $1.1 million in the race.)

With his victory, the question now for his constituents is if Swalwell can be as effective a congressman as he was a candidate.

He said that along with constituent services, his focus in his first term will be on jobs, keeping them in the district and making sure they don't go overseas. Swalwell said he will be a big supporter of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and green energy technologies on Capitol Hill.

He will join a Democratic caucus in which some of his new collegues supported Stark, not him, in the race. But he doesn't believe it will be an issue.

"This morning, I've talked with Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Congressman Jerry McNerney and minority whip Steny Hoyer," Swalwell said. "They have all been very supportive and said they are looking forward to having an active member represent this district."

Though he just won his first campaign, it won't be long before he will have to regroup and prepare for his second.

Its been reported that former Obama administration official Ro Khanna of Fremont held off on running in the 15th district this time around out of respect for Stark. Khanna will have no such worry if he decides to run in 2014 and he has already proved to be an effective fundraiser, amassing $1.26 million. His personal website already looks like a candidate's website.

"It's a democracy and I welcome anyone who wants to challenge," Swalwell said. "In two years, I hope I will have a record that I will be proud to defend."

Fred Eiger November 10, 2012 at 08:29 PM
Correct Zinn.... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Jn8K8EA7-Q
Joy Montgomery November 10, 2012 at 11:42 PM
I think, along with Eric Swallwell's efforts, Pete Stark beat Pete Stark. I found his behavior offensive but he did good things for us in spite of his astonishingly arrogant attitude.
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Steve December 05, 2012 at 08:48 PM
Eric is a good, thoughtful man.

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