Recall fight may turn out to be a plus for Denham

SACRAMENTO -- He denounced it as a political stunt and power play, but was the recall campaign against state Sen. Jeff Denham the best thing to ever happen to his political career?

The upside for the Atwater Republican grew immensely this week when Senate leader Don Perata, D-Oakland, called off the campaign.

Denham, who has raised considerable funds to fight the effort, vowed Thursday to continue his defense because his name will still be on the ballot June 3.

Indeed, some local Democrats intend to keep campaigning against the senator on a grass-roots level.

Ads against him have already run. But Denham has run his own TV spots and gained support from newspaper editorials.

"It's certainly raised my profile around the state," Denham said, adding that he is now recognized by strangers in airports.

Not bad for a guy who until a few months ago was a little-known state senator representing an oddly shaped rural district.

It's the kind of exposure that could give him a boost as he eyes a possible run for lieutenant governor in 2010, said GOP strategist Dan Schnur.

"Don Perata has essentially given Denham a statewide fundraising and political network that is going to be very valuable for the lieutenant governor's race," said Schnur, a political communications instructor at University of California at Berkeley and the University of Southern California.

The exposure might not help too much in the general election, where Republicans have struggled in downticket statewide races. But Denham could get a big boost in the GOP primary, where Republican loyalists hold sway.

The recall has "turned Jeff Denham into a folk hero for Republican grass-roots activists," Schnur said.

Denham said he won't make a final decision on his bid until next year.

State Democratic Party officials say the recall effort has hurt Denham more than it has helped him. The campaign tried to paint him as too conservative for the moderate district he represents.

"Now everybody knows him as the state senator who told his constituents he was going to do one thing and instead did another," said Democratic Party spokesman Roger Salazar.

The recall was launched to punish Denham for his refusal to vote for the state budget last year, a holdout that led to a lengthy standoff.

Denham and other Republicans wanted bigger cuts in the budget.

Perata called off the effort Wednesday, saying he did it it to smooth budget negotiations with Republicans. The state faces an even bigger deficit this year than last year, estimated to be as steep as $20 billion.

Denham's campaign said Perata backed off because he couldn't win.

"It looks like he's trying to cut his losses -- there was a lack of support for it in [the] district," said Denham spokesman Kevin Spillane.

Because ballots already have been printed and mailed, voters will still be faced with the recall question.

"Right now I'm on the ballot and we're going to run a full campaign," Denham said in an interview.

Also, while the Perata-led group is pulling expensive advertising buys, there's no indication that the anti-Denham campaign will cease at the local level.

"State Sen. Perata doesn't speak for the California Democratic Party," said Susan Rowe, chairwoman of the Madera County Democratic Central Committee. "We already endorsed the yes [on the recall] campaign."

Simón Salinas, the Democrat from Monterey County running to replace Denham, said he has suspended his campaign until he gets more direction from district Democrats.

"I haven't heard yet what their assessment is or what the strategy is going to be," he said in an interview early Thursday afternoon.

Through April 19, Denham had raised more than $1.2 million to fight the recall. The recall campaign reported raising $495,000 as of that same date. Democrats raised additional money earlier to collect signatures to put the question on the ballot.

If Denham wins, he can choose to have his campaign spending reimbursed with taxpayer dollars, though he has vowed not to pursue that option.

Denham's ads have run only in his district, which runs from the Salinas Valley over to Merced, dropping into Madera. But newspapers from across the state have covered the story, and Denham has made fundraising stops in Southern California and elsewhere.

Still, Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant not tied to the recall, questioned how much of a boost Denham would really get, if any.

"This state is too big ... and this is mostly in the back pages," he said. "It was never a big deal."