California 23rd District
In a state where stunning coastal landscapes and charming small towns are a dime a dozen, Santa Barbara stands out as someplace special. It is a collection of red tile roofs and leafy live oaks, sheltered by towering mountains just above the sea. The impression is a bit misleading, for Santa Barbara has its problems. Most of its quaint white stucco buildings were put up not as part of 18th-century mission settlement, but after a 1925 earthquake leveled much of the town. Like Disneyland, Santa Barbara is not an authentic antique, but rather a bigger, more attractive, cleaner version of a historical artifact, one that is maintained not by a company, but by an architectural review board. Santa Barbara’s affluence isn’t ersatz. This has long been one of the nation’s richest retirement communities, one determined to preserve its pristine environment and serenity. Both features came under threat spectacularly in 1969, when an underwater oil well ruptured, coating the beach with oil. Pictures of the oil slick in the channel, and of volunteers trying to wash oil off grounded birds, helped to launch the 1970s environmental movement. Almost all of the wells are closed now (though some old 19th-century wells still send globs of oil to the beach at nearby Summerland). But the oil spill left a long-lasting residue in Santa Barbara’s politics. This was once a mostly Republican community, uninterested in redistribution of wealth, but always concerned about the environment (it has built the nation’s largest desalination plant) and having moderate-to-liberal impulses on cultural issues. Like most of coastal California, it has moved decisively to the left in the past decade. But some of the changes have not gone smoothly, as pressure grew to split Santa Barbara into two counties of roughly equal population: a Mission County to the west and north, which would be more conservative, and a Santa Barbara County, which would be more liberal. In June 2006, county voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposal.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The 23rd Congressional District of California is a thin strip of Pacific coastline, two to 12 miles wide, that runs from the industrial ports of Oxnard and Port Hueneme southeast of Santa Barbara to the north end of San Luis Obispo County on the Big Sur coast, just north of William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon. Nearly half of the population lives in upscale Santa Barbara County. But the largest city is Oxnard, in Ventura County, which, with a large number of immigrants, is anything but upscale. Overall, the district is 44% Hispanic. Much of the Santa Barbara coastline is occupied by Vandenberg Air Force Base, which launches unmanned government and commercial satellites into polar orbit. The largest towns in northern Santa Barbara County, like San Luis Obispo to the north, are pleasant, comfortable places, as untrendy as you can find in coastal California. Environmentalists want to extend the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to cover the waters off San Luis Obispo. In its final working days in January 2009, the Bush Administration proposed opening much of this area to oil and natural gas exploration, which spurred a lively debate here. This was a marginal district, seriously contested several times in the 1990s. But in its current iteration, it is safely Democratic. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama won the district by a solid 66%-32% over Republican John McCain.