Aug. 17 2011 10:37 AM

John Stahl challenges Republican incumbent in open primary

Any way the wind blows, nothing but federal spending really matters to John Stahl.
Photo by Dave Maass

If elected to Congress, John Stahl would push to create a “Committee on Redundancy, Waste and Duplication.” From the military to Medicare, the conservative from Del Mar sees millions, perhaps billions, in spending that could be eliminated with some commonsense budget cuts.

Voters might wonder whether Stahl himself is redundant: He is a Republican running for California's 50th Congressional District, which is already held by a Republican, Brian Bilbray. In Stahl's mind, San Diego voters keep sending Bilbray, a RINO (Republican In Name Only) to Washington because he's the “dog with less fleas,” compared with his Democratic opponents. Conservatives need an alternative, he says.

“People are starting to see that he's not a conservative,” says the 64-year-old retiree, who stands a tall 6-foot-4. “When you say, ‘I'm a Republican,' it doesn't necessarily mean you're a conservative.”

Bilbray is somewhat pro-choice, while Stahl is firmly pro-life. Bilbray voted to raise the debt ceiling; Stahl says he would not. Bilbray is a career politician backed by corporate PACs; Stahl is a former Navy pilot and retired private-sector executive (he worked in the semiconductor industry, including for defense-contractor Raytheon) who doesn't plan to accept a penny from PACs. And while Bilbray's main strength is incumbency, Stahl says he has attended more than 30 county-level conservative meetings in the last three months in hopes of growing a following among Tea Party-related groups and recruiting volunteers for his ground campaign.

Re-drawn boundaries have made Bilbray's district more competitive. Viable Democratic challengers have begun to emerge: Former Assemblymember Lori Saldaña has announced her candidacy, and former San Diego City Councilmember Scott Peters is expected to join the race soon. With California about to test its new open-primary election next June, observers find it difficult to predict its impact on the race.

“If the electorate were confined only to Republicans, then it would be to the advantage of a Tea Party candidate,” says Gary Jacobson, a UCSD political science professor. “But, I'm still not sure there's enough Tea Partiers in the Republican Party in this part of the country that [Bilbray] will be seriously threatened by the guy.”

Republican political consultant John Dadian says the bigger danger for Bilbray would be if Stahl shaves off just enough conservative votes that Bilbray places third in the primary, sending two Democrats into the general election.

“Absolutely that's a possibility,” Dadian says. “It'll be interesting to see exactly what [Stahl's] position is and why he is challenging the incumbent of the same party.”

Stahl, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Florida in 1994, fits the model and motif common among Tea Party candidates around the country, from his American flag ties to his self-identification as a “patriot.” He talks frequently about free-market capitalism, instituting a flat tax and cutting baseline spending across the board, including within the Department of Defense, a policy that has begun to separate traditional Republicans from many Tea Party conservatives.

Stahl's also running as a populist, with plans to close tax loopholes for corporations while at the same time reducing the corporate tax rate to about 12 percent—in line with Ireland, one of the lowest rates—to entice businesses to move overseas money back to the U.S. In addition, Stahl doesn't want to raise the eligibility age for Medicare and instead supports tacking on small co-pays.

“My mother tells me she has friends who just go to the doctor because they're bored,” Stahl says. “It doesn't cost them anything, so they get to go in and someone is nice to them. They say, ‘I've got a little pain here,' whatever. What we've got to do is get back the having skin in the game.”

“Skin in the game” is a catchphrase Stahl frequently repeats as he polishes his message on federal spending.

“You've got the government-bureaucracy class and the dependency class squeezing the productive class in the middle and saying, ‘We want more, we want it for free, we don't want to put any skin in the game and we're going to make you feel bad if you don't give it to us,'” he says.

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