WASHINGTON – With a notorious fall from grace and a faltering rehabilitation campaign, Rep. Gary Condit looks poised to earn the dubious distinction of being the first incumbent in the 2002 election to lose the primary to an outside challenger.
On Tuesday, the seven-term congressman representing the recently redrawn 18th district in California's Central Valley will face four opponents ready to take the Democratic nomination. Running on top of the pack is state Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza, who previously worked in Condit’s state assembly and congressional offices and once called himself a Condit friend.
A poll in late January conducted for Cardoza by A.J. Moore Methods placed Cardoza ahead of Condit 52 percent to 24 percent. The Campaign & Elections "Oddmaker" gives Condit a 33 percent chance of winning the general election.
Political insiders call Condit's race at best, a toss-up and at worst, the first major defeat of the 53-year-old's 30-year political career. Some are wondering why he is even running, considering the months of negative press following the disappearance of 24-year-old intern Chandra Levy, with whom police sources said Condit had an affair.
"I think it’s crazy. I think he’s going to lose – you would expect a congressman to have more sense to know when he’s going to lose," said Stu Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report.
Levy, a Condit constituent and intern with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, was last seen near her Washington, D.C., apartment April 30 of last year. Relatives have since told the police and media that she had been having an affair with Condit, something Condit denies publicly but Metropolitan Washington police say he confirmed during one of his four interviews with them.
The police continue to investigate Levy's disappearance, though they say Condit is not a suspect. Levy's parents, who live in the district's upper middle-class town of Modesto, have implored Condit to come clean about the affair.
But Condit continues to avoid the question of their relationship, calling Levy a "close friend," and blaming the media for twisting the facts and unfairly accusing him of wrongdoing.
Condit's family members also have turned up in the press to defend him. This week, Condit’s son Chad appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live to defend his father, and take Cardoza to task for raising Levy as a campaign issue. Chad Condit appeared the same week Condit himself went on the program to criticize the media for misrepresenting him.
On Friday, in a KFIV AM-1360 radio debate, which Cardoza declined to attend, Condit took shots at his former friend with a veiled reference to a Cardoza family bowling alley and bar that hosted female mudwrestling events.
"People who try to hold other people in high moral judgment when they are flawed themselves are hypocritical," he said.
Then, again showing his contempt for the media, he added, "I would just hope (voters) look at all the facts, I hope they wouldn’t listen to the news media."
Condit declined an interview for this article.
Doug White, campaign manager for Cardoza, said they have tried not to make Levy's disappearance a campaign issue, but since Republicans would have, Democrats needed to field a stronger candidate in the district once referred to as "Condit Country."
"Gary was so damaged by the scandal that it became clear he could not win the election. We needed to keep this seat in Democratic hands," White said.
Had Levy not disappeared, Condit would have been a shoo-in. He earned a 90 percent chance of being re-elected to the conservative-leaning district where water conservation, air pollution, jobs and immigration were key issues and Condit strong points.
"He runs on his record – he’s brought home the bacon, you can’t fault him there. That’s a hard act to follow," said Republican Park Yonker, a rancher likely to lose his GOP primary bid to state Senator Dick Monteith.
But with a majority of the district demanding "moral leadership," and Condit's perceived hiding from tough questions about Levy and indifference to her family, not even the redistricting of the 18th district to include the majority-Democratic county of San Joaquin appears able to save him.
"All they know about Condit is that he was on television for months and was dodging questions about his relationship with Chandra Levy," Rothenberg said. "They don’t think of him as their member."
Neither, apparently, does the California Democratic delegation, several of whom have openly endorsed Cardoza, including Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful woman in the House and a critical endorsement, dropped her support for Condit in December after he "released" his colleagues from any obligation to endorse him.
That left Rep. Robert Matsui as the only remaining California political endorsement.
"He’s a long-time friend, he endorsed him and that’s all there is to say," said a Matsui spokesman Friday.
With the election outcome pointing heavily toward Cardoza, one of his Democratic opponents offered the strongest words of support on Friday.
"I don’t know of any crime he is accused of," said Democratic candidate Ralph White, a former Stockton City Councilman running third in the primary, during the radio debate. "He’s talked to me as a gentleman and embraced me with open arms as a person. Yes, I think he’s an honorable man."