Golden State warriors

California may decide which party controls Congress.

Published January 12, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The new California gold rush does not live only in the dreams of dot-com wannabes flocking to the Golden State from around the world to be part of the IPO frenzy. It also lives in the hopes of political consultants, Democrat and Republican alike, who are banking on a handful of hotly contested congressional races to boost their fortunes this political season. Both Democrats and Republicans concede that control of the House may be decided in California, the largest, most diverse and most expensive state in the nation.

For most of those upcoming races, Republicans will be playing defense. Republican Reps. Jim Rogan, Brian Bilbray and freshman Steve Kuykendall are at the top of the Democratic hit list for 2000, and Dems view the seat vacated by liberal Rep. Tom Campbell of San Jose as one of the best opportunities for an open seat pick-up this year.

Democratic efforts have been boosted by top-notch candidate recruitment. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Patrick Kennedy, would-be speaker Richard Gephardt and President Clinton have all made personal efforts to recruit top-rung candidates to take on Republican incumbents. Republicans, meanwhile, have had mixed results in their recruitment efforts in a state where Republicans are still shellshocked from their wholesale defeat last November.

"We've had successes all across the country in recruiting top-notch candidates, but we've had exceptional success in our efforts in California," said John Del Cecato, spokesman for the DCCC. "We could potentially win the five seats we need to take back the House all in California."

Del Cecato said that Republicans "have four times as many open seats as we do nationwide. This is the best open-seat environment for Democrats since 1958, when we picked up 14 seats." Political trivia notwithstanding, California promises to be a key congressional battleground with both parties dumping millions into a small cluster of hotly contested races.

But just because it's going to be high-stakes politics doesn't mean voters and reporters can't have a little fun. A few California races promise to be among the most entertaining congressional matchups in the country.

Exhibit A: It appears George W. Bush will not be the only Republican on the March 7 ballot who is running to avenge the electoral sins committed against his father. Though former Rep. Bob Dornan took a pass at challenging fellow Republican Dana Rohrbacher, B-1 Jr. has decided to enter the family business. Mark Dornan, who calls himself a more outspoken version of his famously outspoken father, will take on multimillionaire car alarm magnate Darrell Issa in a safe Republican district currently represented by Ron Packard, who is retiring.

In 1998, Issa found that $8 million could not even buy him the Republican U.S. Senate nomination, but is hoping to have better luck with the smaller prey. State Sen. Bill Morrow, who has the support of much of the Republican Party establishment, is also running. The state will host its share of entertaining primaries in both parties, but perhaps none as potentially explosive as this one.

On the Democratic side, an old feud between warring Los Angeles Latino factions will have new political relevance as state Sen. Hilda Solis takes on nine-term incumbent Matthew Martinez. Martinez, who was once ranked as the most shallow-pated member of the California congressional delegation by California magazine, has been abandoned by many of his supporters, including organized labor, and many of his fellow Democratic members of Congress. Among those is Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a fellow member of the House Democratic Hispanic Caucus, who broke with tradition and endorsed Solis.

Sanchez, herself a perennial target, faces a possible battle against Gloria Matta Tuchman, the state's most visible conservative Latina and author of the state's 1998 bilingual education reform initiative. Matta Tuchman shocked California political watchers last year when she forced schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin into a runoff and came within 6 points of the incumbent, whom some have tapped as a rising star among California Democrats.

And 2000 will also mark the eagerly anticipated return of Rep. Jay Kim, the only incumbent congressman to campaign while under house arrest when he lost the Republican primary in 1998. Kim, who was driven from his seat in the 41st Congressional District after he was placed under house arrest for excessive campaign fund-raising violations, is attempting a political resurrection in the neighboring 42nd District.

This seat is held by Joe Baca, D-Rialto, who won a special election last year after the death of longtime Rep. George Brown. Washington Republicans reportedly had to beg Elia Pirozzi, who lost to Baca last year, to run again. Though aware that the seat is not winnable, the party is propping up Pirozzi to avoid the embarrassment of having Kim on the November ballot.

But despite the sideshow atmosphere, there is a big-time political game developing in California. With four key seats currently held by Republicans, the state is poised to be a multimillion-dollar partisan battleground for congressional control. Gephardt knows this year is his best, and perhaps last, shot at becoming speaker, and he's doing everything in his power to take back the House for Democrats.

And for the lame-duck Clinton, who saw the House slip out of Democratic hands for the first time in 50 years on his watch, the California campaign may provide a last shot at redemption.

In San Jose, Clinton was instrumental in convincing Assemblyman Mike Honda to challenge his popular moderate Republican Assembly colleague Jim Cunneen for Campbell's House seat, promising to make a personal appearance to raise money for Honda. But Republican consultant Kevin Spillane, who is managing Cunneen's campaign, said promises made by party operatives in winter are often broken by the following autumn.

"Just ask Jerry Estruth," Spillane said, referring to the Democrat who was talked into running against Campbell in a 1995 special election when Democratic Rep. Norm Mineta retired. "The Democrats made a whole list of promises about funding to him, but didn't deliver on all of them." Campbell won the seat by 23 points.

The problem is one of simple mathematics and finite resources. Much of the big spending in political campaigns comes in the final 10 days, and with limited funds and such high stakes, decisions from Washington about which races to fund are by necessity made on the fly. Only the candidates who prove they are within striking distance receive the five- and six-figure checks from Washington in the final days of the campaign.

For his part, Spillane insists Cunneen is a better fit for the 15th Congressional than Honda. While the registration numbers in this district are overwhelmingly Democratic, voters have shown a willingness to cross party lines and support moderate Republicans like Campbell in the past.

"Honda is an old-school Democrat," Spillane said. "He's very close to big labor and to the trial lawyers. I think the Democrats came up with the wrong candidate for this district." Spillane touted Cunneen's close ties to the high-tech industry, along with his fiscal conservatism and social liberalism, values tailor-made, he said, for this Silicon Valley district with a strong libertarian stripe.

"But no question, California is going to be a battleground, and this race is probably in the top five targeted seats nationally," Spillane said. "It'll be a tough, expensive, long race." Honda will first have to overcome a primary challenge from businessman Bill Peacock, a former secretary of the Army who ran unsuccessfully for Senate from Missouri in 1992.

Though they were unable to clear the field for Honda in San Jose, in San Diego Democrats effectively pushed Wade Sanders, a former assistant secretary of the Navy, out of a primary contest with Democratic Assemblywoman Susan Davis. With all primary competition out of the way, Davis can now focus her attention on a November showdown with Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray. Bilbray may be at the tippy-top of the Democrats' target list of California Republican incumbents. He soared to the top of target lists after 1998, when Democrat Christine Kehoe exposed his potential vulnerability by coming within a hair's breadth of knocking him off and becoming the first openly gay woman elected to Congress. (Though Kehoe lost, in 1998 another Democrat, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, became the first lesbian elected to Congress.)

Of course, 1998 was a banner year for Democrats, both in California and nationwide. But Davis is seen as a more moderate alternative to Bilbray, and party leaders remain optimistic that the Republican incumbent is vulnerable.

Another congressional veteran making a comeback try is Jane Harman, who will take on freshman Republican Steve Kuykendall, who took her seat when Harman ran for California governor in 1998. Harman, who was known as G.I. Jane for her reliable support of defense projects in her district, is hoping for a triumphant return. Though Harman held the seat for six years, the district is historically and statistically a tough one for Democrats. Kuykendall picked it up in 1998, despite the fact that it was a big year for Democrats.

Democrats are quick to point out that Kuykendall won the seat with less than 50 percent of the vote, but as a moderate Republican who has voted in favor of abortion rights and gun control, he may prove tough to beat.

But the mother of all congressional races will be in the 27th District, in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, where Jim Rogan is facing a tough challenge from Adam Schiff, a man he has bested in electoral contests twice before. But those were different times. When Schiff first ran against Rogan for the Assembly in 1994, he was a little-known U.S. prosecutor without a political track record.

Now, after four years in the state Senate, Schiff has a constituent base in a district that is rapidly trending Democratic. A huge influx of Armenian and Latino immigrants has altered the political landscape of this district. In 1992, Republicans enjoyed a 46-42 registration advantage. As of October, those numbers had shifted to a 45-38 Democratic advantage.

"Adam is just locking up local endorsements, including a lot of Republicans," said Schiff campaign consultant Steve Gray-Barkan. "He has 15 elected Republicans from the area who have endorsed him." Schiff has also proven to be a prodigious fund-raiser, raking in more than $1.1 million to date, with roughly $700,000 of that money still in the bank, according to his campaign.

Rogan, buoyed by his celebrity status in Republican circles as one of the House impeachment managers, has out-raised Schiff nearly 2-1, but has also spent more. Rogan's campaign claims the incumbent has just over $1 million cash on hand.

Rogan's district is one of the many in California that will disappear from Republican target lists after the next reapportionment. Now that the state Supreme Court has booted off the ballot a measure that would put redistricting in the hands of an independent commission, Democrats are all but sure to control the process after the 2000 census.

A Democrat occupies the California governor's mansion, and Dems enjoy comfortable majorities in both houses of the Legislature. And with California expected to pick up at least one seat in the next reapportionment, Democrats could shore up California, and perhaps congressional control, for the next decade.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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