As recently as a month ago, it was assumed that Rep. John Doolittle would trample another Democratic opponent while winning a ninth term as the congressman who represents California's 4th District.
In fact it was suggested to me as recently as last week that unless our incumbent gets indicted, he will get re-elected easily. This vast district, which includes seven complete counties and parts of two others, is solidly Republican at a time when many people make their decisions based upon a candidate's party affiliation rather than on qualifications or ideas.
But the landscape is changing rapidly and as a result we may have one of the more watched races in the nation given Doolittle's leadership position in the Republican Party and his ties to former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Rep. Tom DeLay, who has his own election and legal concerns.
In addition to Doolittle, we have three candidates running for Congress. Charles Brown and Lisa Rea are vying for the Democratic nomination, while Mike Holmes of Auburn is challenging the congressman in the Republican primary.
On Wednesday, I spent about an hour with Brown after he stopped by The Union. He explained to me why he believes he can accomplish what so rarely happens these days in America, which is to beat an incumbent.
Brown, 56, brings military and law enforcement credentials to the race. The Iowa native spent 26 years as first a helicopter and than an airplane pilot in the Air Force before retiring in 1998 as a lieutenant colonel. He now works for the Roseville Police Department.
His military career took him to Thailand where as a helicopter pilot he helped with the evacuation of Phnom Penn and the Magayuez incident, which earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.
He participated in missions in Panama, Grenada, Lebanon and in Saudi Arabia where he scheduled surveillance missions in the mid-1990s that included keeping a close eye on the forces of Saddam Hussein and those illusive weapons of mass destruction. His 26-year-old son, Jeff, is now doing his third tour of duty in Iraq as a C-130 transport plane pilot.
Brown is crystal clear in his opposition to the war in Iraq, a position he has maintained since before those first missiles went screaming into Baghdad. "Before it started, I was telling people that this was not a good idea," he said.
If anything, his opposition seems to have grown since the pre-emptive invasion. He gets angry when talking about a war that he believes the Bush Administration continues to mismanage. For example, Brown wonders why it is taking so long to put metal shields below Humvees that would deflect roadside bomb blasts and possibly save lives. He also believes the president ignored requests from generals, some of whom have since retired, who wanted more ground troops in Iraq.
Brown is not the only veteran who is expressing his dissatisfaction with how the war is being prosecuted. He is among a growing number of veterans, including many who fought in Iraq, who are running for either Congress or the U.S. Senate.
The group, known informally as the Fighting Dems, has grown to at least 30 candidates who are seeking to change the culture in Washington and bring a front-line perspective about the war, according to Brown.
These candidates include David Ashe, a 36-year-old who was a major in the Marine Corps and now hopes to represent Virginia's 2nd Congressional District. He was assigned to an infantry battalion while in Iraq.
Andrew Duck, 42, was a captain in the U.S. Army who worked as an intelligence liaison officer while with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq. He is running in Maryland's 6th Congressional District.
Paul Hackett, 43, also was a major in the Marine Corps. He fought in Iraq and was hit by an IED while participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is seeking to represent Ohio in the Senate.
Like these combat veterans, most of those running are officers or senior noncommissioned officers. Brown said he is flying this weekend to Washington to meet with some of these candidates who believe if they work together than can bring real change to Washington.
"This country is being taken in the wrong direction by a small group of people," said Brown, referring to how the White House and the Republican leaders in Congress have led the country.
The change he's referring to revolves partially around the lobbyist/money culture. Brown acknowledges that lobbyists can play an important role in shaping the nation's policy and even in helping write legislation. But their role has been distorted in a way that is not serving the best interests of the average American, he said.
Brown pledged Wednesday that if elected he will list the names on his Web site of all lobbyists who meet with him as well as the subject of their discussions. He also promises to work directly with local governments that seek funds for projects.
He also believes that President Bush's position on torture is wrong and is uncomfortable with the decision to do surveillance on Americans without obtaining warrants from the secret FISA court. The administration's opposition to disclosing anything involving the energy commission's meetings held by Vice President Cheney also concerns him.
"Our constitutional rights are being stomped all over, and there is too much secrecy coming out of Washington," Brown said. "Now, we have a president who decides what the law means."
On the domestic front, he supports basic universal health care that would at least provide immunizations, annual physicals and pre-natal assistance. He also supports a guest worker program for illegal immigrants, a position he said is also held by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
It's yet to be seen if any challenger can unseat an entrenched incumbent like Doolittle.
But at least we have interesting candidates to consider besides those who are part of the Washington establishment.
Pat Butler is the editor of The Union. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 477-4235.