Some Quick Thoughts on the Gill/McNerney Forum
First, going in the candidates had different challenges and goals, and these challenges reflect the basic structure of the campaigns to date. McNerney had to demonstrate that he understood the Valley. Gill had to call that assertion into question. Gill had to demonstrate that he was up to the task of being a congressman given his youth and dearth of professional experience. McNerney had to call that assertion into question.
On these grounds, Gill did a better job last night than McNerney did. Gill was aggressive, always on the attack, quick to point out the ways in which McNerney was not connected to the Valley and he was. Basically every time he spoke, Gill had something bad to say about McNerney.
McNerney, on the other hand, was less effective in calling into question Gill’s experience and gravitas. Gill certainly didn’t make it easy for him given the way he comported himself on stage, but when McNerney tried to attack Gill it was largely on policy grounds. Gill was happy to attack on personal and policy grounds. And do it constantly.
Second, the forum demonstrated why incumbents hate debating challengers. Forums like this one elevate challengers and generally only make the challenger look better than they would without a debate. Certainly that happened last night.
Two other factors made last night easier for Gill. The recent redistricting especially put McNerney in an awkward spot for this forum. His old district included areas on both sides of the Altamont Pass. It was part Valley part Bay Area, and he had to represent both parts of the district. (You can compare the old and new districts here. The old district was CD-11, and the new is CD-9.) As a result, he doesn’t have the record to run on that someone with a largely Valley district would. And Gill hammered on him for it. At the same time, McNerney is a very soft-spoken individual. Public speaking is not his forte. Gill is clearly better at presenting himself in public forums.
Third, I continue to be amazed that McNerney lets Gill paint himself as a moderate, quasi-not-a-Republican when Gill’s policy positions put him squarely in the middle of the Republican party. He is anti-abortion. He has signed Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge (no new taxes ever). There were several times when McNerney could have gone after these points but he didn’t.
Finally, for better or for worse, the forum was entirely about the San Joaquin Valley. Partly, this is because Gill has effectively framed the contest as about the Valley. Partly, it was because the people asking questions were from the Valley. Pacific is part of the Valley. The district, however, is more than just the Valley. Roughly a third of the district’s registered voters live outside San Joaquin County. I don’t know if either candidate spoke to those voters last night.