(March 8 — By Dan Morain, Editorial Page Editor)
Rep. Tom McClintock, a career politician who is a master of anti-government rhetoric, occupies one of the safest Republican congressional districts in America.
But this year, the seat that stretches from Roseville and Lincoln east to Lake Tahoe and south past Yosemite could become a battleground in the struggle for control of the Grand Old Party.
McClintock was one of 60 House Republicans who led the shutdown of the federal government last October, in a loopy attempt to end government funding for the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama's signature domestic policy program.
"That's what convinced me to run," Art Moore told me the other day. He had spent months planning his challenge and announced it on Friday. "There was no excuse. It had national-security implications."
Moore, a Republican, called himself a conservative, but thinks representatives should deliver for folks back home, quite a concept these days. To be taken seriously, he will need to raise six figures quickly. But he's being guided by a veteran strategist, Rob Stutzman, who generally doesn't work for free.
Not yet 36, Moore represents much that McClintock is not. McClintock, 57, lives 40 miles outside the district in Elk Grove. Moore grew up in Auburn, was a Boy Scout and Eagle Scout there, graduated from Placer High, and went to St. Joseph's Catholic Church.
He wears a class ring from West Point, the U.S. Military Academy from which he graduated in 2000. He became an Army major, served multiple tours of duty in Iraq, Kuwait and Egypt, and is in the National Guard.
When he stepped away from a military career, he worked for a building-supply company and more recently for the consulting firm Deloitte in Washington, D.C., holding a top-secret clearance and providing advice to intelligence agencies. He moved back to the district in December, and lives in Roseville.
McClintock, who has stopped talking to me, got his start in politics in his 20s by working as an aide to Sen. Ed Davis in the Southern California district where his parents lived.
He won an Assembly seat in 1982 at age 26, served 22 years in the Legislature, with a two-year break, and won the congressional seat in 2008 when he was termed out of the Legislature.
He was, ironically, one of the most vocal backers of California's legislative term-limits initiative in 1990. He has lost many races for statewide office. For a time in 2012, a supporter started Draft Tom McClintock for President. The Facebook page has 488 likes.
The contrast between Moore and McClintock goes beyond résumés. Moore talks about making government work, finding ways to improve Lake Tahoe, spending tax money on flood-control projects, and building an alliance with Democrats such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
"We just need better representation," Moore said.
McClintock is one of only four House members who received 100 percent pure ratings in 2013 from the conservative advocacy groups Freedomworks and Club for Growth. Heritage Action for America gave him a 91 percent score, the highest for any California House member.
To achieve celestial status among conservatives, McClintock voted against raising the debt ceiling, against the Hurricane Sandy emergency relief legislation and against the farm bill.
Freedomworks lauded him for voting to cut $100 million from the Essential Air Service, a subsidy so air carriers can provide service to less-traveled airports. Airports in Merced and Visalia provide commercial air service because of a combined $3.4 million in subsidies, presumably something residents in McClintock's Congressional District 4 use.
Earlier this month, McClintock joined 85 Republicans and five Democrats by voting against House Resolution 3370, which seeks to ease the sticker shock of a run-up in federally subsidized flood-insurance premiums.
The legislation is particularly helpful to families in flood-prone parts of the Sacramento region. The Club for Growth denounced the federal flood-insurance program as "hostile to liberty and limited government."
McClintock ended 2013 with $367,000 in his campaign bank account, paltry. By contrast, Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican who occupies a San Joaquin Valley district that abuts McClintock's turf, ended the year with nearly $1.3 million in the bank. Denham, hardly a dewy-eyed liberal, received a 51 percent rating from Club for Growth.
McClintock's standing among conservative groups could be his salvation. Freedomworks and the others will spend tens of millions challenging U.S. Chamber of Commerce-backed Republicans, and, in some instances, Republicans backed by Speaker John Boehner.
Business-oriented Republican organizations have made clear they will back candidates who, like Moore, offer alternatives to hard-right politicians.
"Other business groups I talk to - not the Cal Chamber - are growing increasingly frustrated with Republican incumbents who can't get anything done," said Marty Wilson, a Republican and the lead strategist for the California Chamber of Commerce's state campaign effort.
Over coffee the other day at Fox & Goose, Moore sat ramrod straight and directly answered questions about his positions: Doesn't care if same-sex couples marry. Believes gays should have been admitted to the military 10 years ago. Thinks reproductive questions ought to be left to women and their doctors, though he would vote against government funding of abortion and opposes abortion personally.
Moore has never voted, but not because he was too busy. He followed a traditional view that military officers should remain apolitical. That allows them to provide civilian leaders their best advice, with "no question about your loyalties," he said.
Hot-button issues aside, he believes the federal government has a role in flood control, thinks Congress needs to pay its obligations, and has faith that a more active member of Congress can improve life in the district and nation.
"We're a really strong country. So let's get after the problems," he said.
Without a doubt, Congressional District 4, which has 66,000 more Republicans than Democrats, will remain a Republican seat for years to come. The question for the district's voters is simple: Do they want their congressional member to ruminate, speechify and argue fine points of what it means to be conservative, or do they want a legislator who will legislate?
Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.