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Dan Morain: Tom McClintock should have no fear of losing re-election, except this is a weird year

Voters are in a foul mood. California’s jungle primary system has altered campaigns. Candidates with the most money usually win.

Art Moore, a 36-year-old upstart Republican, is testing the veracity of those three statements by challenging fellow Republican Tom McClintock, a career politician who resides in Elk Grove but represents a district that includes Rocklin, Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park.

In the Sacramento region, Republican Doug Ose’s multimillion-dollar campaign to unseat Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, is attracting national attention. In the Bay Area, pundits are focusing on Democrat Ro Khanna’s multimillion-dollar effort to defeat Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose.

The McClintock-Moore race is barely a blip, probably because Moore has raised only $78,000, not nearly enough to wage a winning campaign. McClintock, a conservative icon who should be able to sleep-walk to victory, has said Moore’s candidacy is a Democratic ploy. Based on money, experience and organization, McClintock should have nothing to fear on Nov. 4. But this is a weird year.

A new Field Poll shows only 13 percent of voters approve of the job Congress is doing. There was a time when voters disliked Congress but thought their own representatives were, if not swell, acceptable. Not now.

Field found a mere 36 percent of voters approve of their representative. That attitude is particularly true in Republican districts, where 47 percent of voters disapprove of their representatives’ performance.

“It’s a new phenomenon,” Field Poll’s Mark DiCamillo said, noting that voters are starting to take out their anger at Congress on their own representatives.

This is a year when voters nationally are rejecting tea party candidates, and no member of California’s congressional delegation reflects rigid tea party politics more than McClintock.

FreedomWorks, a Washington, D.C., political organization that spends millions to elect conservatives, gave McClintock perfect scores for his votes in 2012, 2013 and 2014, one of no more than four Republicans nationally and the only Californian to reach such depths of negativity.

FreedomWorks, and its congressional adherents, opposed GOP-brokered deals including ones by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to avert the fiscal cliff in 2012, and by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to end last year’s budget standoff.

FreedomWorks’ litmus test included votes to protect the coal industry, oppose some transportation spending, strip money from the Export-Import Bank, limit renewable energy programsand increase student-loan interest rates.

As insurgent campaigns do, Moore’s candidacy is giving voice to people who have been rubbed wrong by McClintock. And there are plenty of them.

There is, for one, the United Auburn Indian Community, the tribe that owns Thunder Valley Casino in Lincoln.

McClintock offended members by not meeting with them a few years back when they traveled to Washington, D.C., to bend his ear about how other tribes and developers were seeking to open casinos by shopping for reservation land away from their reservations. United Auburn donated $5,200 to Moore.

“This election should put Tom McClintock on notice that he should represent his entire district, not a constituency of tea party and right-wing conservatives who have no relationship to the district,” said Doug Elmets, a Republican consultant who represents the tribe.

Then there are the political and business leaders in the Yosemite region who became dismayed last year when McClintock voted to shut the federal government, including Yosemite, damaging the tourist trade that is the region’s lifeblood.

“I felt our district has been ignored,” Mariposa County Supervisor Kevin Cann, a Republican who supports Moore, told me. “Yosemite isn’t just a part of the economy. It is the entire economy.”

And McClintock repeatedly annoyed former Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1990s, when then-Assemblyman McClintock represented a Southern California district. He regularly challenged the Republican governor and voted against Wilson’s budgets.

In a note to me, Wilson described Moore as “the kind of strong young leader we need to shape the future of the Republican Party and, more important, the future of the nation.”

Wilson, a Marine veteran, pointed out that Moore is a West Point graduate who served three tours of combat duty and was awarded a Bronze Star. By implication, Wilson was needling McClintock, who got his start by working as an aide to a Southern California legislator, won an Assembly seat in 1982 and remains in elected office three decades later.

“America desperately needs firm, experienced leadership in this volatile and threatening time,” Wilson said, citing dangers posed by the terrorist Islamic State and Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Yet far too few members of Congress these days have served in the military.”

Moore’s candidacy is a creature of California’s new primary system in which the top two vote-getters face off in the November general election, regardless of party affiliation.

Challengers have shown they can knock off incumbents of their own party, if they can attract voters who are independents or in the opposite party. That takes money.

In 2012, Eric Swalwell, a young Democrat, defeated Rep. Pete Stark, the Democrat who had represented the East Bay district since 1973. Swalwell raised $826,000.

This year, Khanna, another upstart Democrat, hopes to unseat Honda, a Democratic veteran in the San Jose area. Khanna has raised $2.8 million.

Moore’s campaign manager, Rob Stutzman, spins a story showing that Moore could win. McClintock appeals to conservatives, Stutzman says, but Moore could attract Republicans who dislike the incumbent, plus independents and Democratic voters who want to be rid of McClintock.

Theories don’t win elections. It will come down to money and the candidate who does the best of job of turning out voters. Turnout probably will fall below 50 percent. That probably will benefit McClintock, whose supporters vote reliably. McClintock had $425,568 in the bank at the end of June. That isn’t much, but it’s vastly more than Moore’s anemic $4,200. Of course, wealthy donors who have butted heads with McClintock could fund an independent campaign. There’s little evidence that will take place. But weirder things have happened.