Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's recent stumbles are unwelcome news for GOP candidates in tight California congressional races, though perhaps less so than for their peers in other states.
As Romney's poll numbers dip and he tries to regain traction, candidates in California seem to be taking a wait-and-see attitude as to whether to distance themselves from Romney, as numerous Senate and House candidates around the country already have done.
Spokesmen for some -- including Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Modesto, and former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, who's challenging Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara -- say what Romney says has little impact here. But other campaigns are less willing to discuss Romney's troubles.
Eleven California House districts are considered competitive, according to the closely watched Cook Political Report. That makes the Golden State a make-or-break battleground for the Democrats' long-shot quest to gain 25 House seats and perhaps reinstall San Francisco's Nancy Pelosi as House speaker.
This week a video surfaced of a May Romney fundraiser in Florida at which he badmouthed "47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what" because they're dependent upon government and pay no income tax.
Colin Hunter, a campaign spokesman for Republican Ricky Gill of Lodi, who's taking on Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, in the 9th Congressional District, said he would "respectfully decline to comment" on Romney's remarks. Alee Lockman, campaign manager for Republican Kim Vann -- who's challenging Rep. John Garamendi, D-Fairfield -- said only that "Kim remains focused on talking with 3rd District voters and sharing her positive message of working toward common-sense solutions to the challenges facing our nation."
Representatives of Rep. Dan Lungren's re-election campaign didn't return emails and calls Thursday and Friday seeking comment.
Romney arrived in the Bay Area on Friday evening for a Hillsborough fundraiser to which no reporters were admitted, after 10 rocky days. Even before the "47 percent" video surfaced, his Sept. 12 criticism of President Barack Obama's handling of attacks that killed Bay Area native Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, had polled poorly. Then last weekend brought a wave of stories quoting sources within the Romney campaigns describing disarray and pointing fingers.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said Republicans definitely are nervous that if Obama wins big, House Democrats could exceed expectations and perhaps even retake the chamber. That's still a very remote possibility, he said, but "it is certainly true that as Obama's vote total goes up, the potential for significant coat tail increases."
But Gary Jacobson, a congressional elections expert at UC San Diego, said Romney's missteps might hurt California GOP candidates a little less.
"Insofar as they get tied to his message, then there might be some problem," he said. "But the advantage for California Republicans is that there's no Romney campaign here whatsoever. The state has been conceded to Obama, as well it should be. So that probably limits the kind of 'guilt by association' that Republicans might face when Romney makes comments that seem to be unpopular and not very astute.
"It never helps to have the top of your ticket floundering around. ... But I don't think it's going to be decisive in any of these races" in California, Jacobson said.
New polls might be starting to show the fallout for the Romney stumbles.
A Purple Insights poll released Friday shows Obama leading Romney 49 percent to 44 percent across a dozen battleground states, compared with a one-point Romney lead last month.
Sabato, however, noted that if many Californians decide not to go to the polls because the state is a lock for Obama, the depressed voter turnout could actually help Republicans.
Brook Hougesen, spokeswoman for a Republican super PAC called the Congressional Leadership Fund, said she hasn't seen Romney become a liability for any California House candidate, "though the same cannot be said for President Obama."
"Ultimately, these campaigns are going to be about the various candidates' economic records," she said. "Unfortunately for Democrats running in California, voters may personally like President Obama, but in the competitive California districts they fundamentally disapprove of his economic policies -- the exact same ones vulnerable incumbent Democrats ushered in."
But Andy Stone, spokesman for the Democrat-affiliated House Majority PAC and a former McNerney aide, predicted Romney's gaffes "will have a huge effect" on California's GOP congressional contenders.
"Why else would Republicans in swing districts nationwide be sprinting from Mitt Romney and be doing acrobatics to avoid being associated with him?" he said. "The bottom line is that Mitt Romney perfectly exemplifies a party that -- whether it's ending Medicare, cutting Pell Grants or gutting infrastructure funding all to pay for tax cuts for the wealthiest -- has made it clear they're not on the side of the middle class. GOP congressional candidates won't be able to run from that."
Some say they don't have to.
"A large majority of voters know that California is irrelevant in the presidential race and the place they can make the biggest impact with their vote is at the congressional level," said Dave Gilliard, who's managing Denham's re-election campaign against Democratic challenger Jose Hernandez.
"No matter who wins the presidency, 10th District voters want a representative who will be independent and not afraid to take on the big spenders and status quo and, most important, someone who understands the (Central) Valley's economy and is committed to turning things around," he said.
Maldonado spokesman Kurt Bardella said House campaigns were more likely to be swayed by bigger races in 2010, when California had costly, hard-fought contests for governor and U.S. Senate.
"This time there is none of that, there is no top-of-the-ticket race in California," he said, noting that Obama is a lock and most voters can't even name U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein's GOP challenger. (It's Elizabeth Emken of Danville.)
"It's almost like an off-year election for us instead of us being on a presidential-year trajectory," Bardella said. "Because the president is going to win here, the only thing that gets you out to the polls is how passionate you are about the next race down on the ballot."
But asked about Maldonado opinion on Romney's remarks, Bardella replied that Maldonado is too wrapped up in his own race and the district's issues to pay any mind to what presidential candidates say.
northern california's hot house races
3rd District: Rep. John Garamendi, D-Fairfield, vs. Colusa County Supervisor Kim Vann (R)
7th District: Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, vs. Dr. Ami Bera of Elk Grove (D)
9th District: Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, vs. Ricky Gill of Lodi (R)
10th District: Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Modesto, vs. Jose Hernandez of Stockton (D)