WASHINGTON -- Former San Joaquin Valley Rep. Richard Pombo returned to his Capitol Hill haunts this week, raising money for a race he thought he would never enter.
With the help of three D.C. fund- raising events in two days, Pombo said he has now collected "several hundred thousand dollars" in his month-old bid to replace retiring Rep. George Radano-vich, R-Mariposa. He expects more of the same as the 19th Congressional District campaign unfolds.
"I think it's going to be a million- dollar race," Pombo predicted Thursday.
Money matters, because it will shape how a candidate gets the message out. It's also a proxy for political seriousness, as campaign political professionals prefer to invest in winners.
The last time Pombo ran a multimillion dollar race, he lost. The rancher and one-time Tracy city councilman spent $4.6 million in his 2006 re-election bid. He was beat by Democrat Jerry McNerney, who spent $2.6 million but who also was boosted by millions of dollars in additional advertising by Defenders of Wildlife and other environmental groups
Circumstances have changed since then -- potentially, to Pombo's advantage. In 2006, he was a top target for Democrats and environmentalists unhappy over his stewardship of the House Resources Committee. He was running in a district whose contours had been stretched outside his familiar San Joaquin Valley.
"We had a tsunami coming at us," Pombo said.
This year, Democrats have less incentive to throw major resources at challenging Pombo. Although he has never represented people living in the 19th Congressional District, which includes portions of Stanislaus, Madera, Mariposa and Fresno counties, he maintains that he has better overall name identification than his opponents.
Pombo, state Sen. Jeff Denham of Atwater, former Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson and current Fresno City Councilman Larry Westerlund are competing for the Republican nomination. Because of the district's strong GOP leanings, the winner of the June primary victory is all but guaranteed the seat in November.
Radanovich announced his retirement in late December, citing his wife's ongoing struggle with cancer. He immediately endorsed Denham, as have several other California House members, and Pombo said he understands that Radanovich's long-time political advisers are assisting Denham.
Radanovich has been largely out of the public eye since his retirement announcement. But in a statement issued on his behalf by a campaign consultant, and not his congressional office, Radanovich is quoted as brushing off Pombo.
"Had Richard Pombo asked for my opinion or support, I would have recommended that he run in his own district against the weak and unpopular Democrat who defeated him in 2006," Radanovich said in the statement.
But Pombo, who said he previously had rejected several entreaties to directly challenge Radanovich, has been scooping up endorsements as well as dollars. Several Californians, including Reps. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, and Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, helped him this week.
"The reaction has been really good," Pombo said. "People seem genuinely exciting about my coming back."
Off Capitol Hill, Pombo met with a variety of targeted interest and ideological groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He said he expects a number of the groups to endorse him and contribute to his campaign.
Dressed in cowboy boots and a casual shirt, and accompanied by campaign consultant Steve Ding, Pombo was speaking in an auxiliary House of Representatives' office provided by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. Nunes has been particularly active in promoting Pombo's effort to return to Congress after.
"He's got a lot of friends around here," Nunes said. "People know everything about Richard, and they like him."
Nunes helped hold Pombo's three fund-raisers this week. The first, held by the National Rifle Association, drew 40 to 50 people Tuesday night. Wednesday, Nunes and McCarthy helped hold a reception and dinner at the Capitol Hill Club.
McCarthy originally endorsed Denham but switched his allegiance to Pombo after the former congressman entered the race.
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at email@example.com or 202-383-0006.