WASHINGTON — More than a year before the November, 1986, election, Democrats in Congress are working quietly behind the scenes to organize a possible challenge to Orange County's newest representative, Republican firebrand Robert K. Dornan.
Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview last week that Dornan might be vulnerable in the next election because of his reputation for harsh rhetoric and because of adverse reaction for physically threatening another congressman on the House floor. Dornan defeated Rep. Jerry M. Patterson (D-Santa Ana), a five-term veteran, last year by a margin of eight percentage points and was able to outspend the Democrats $1,017,853 to $698,747.
Coelho said a final decision about what share of the Democrats' election resources would be devoted to the 38th Congressional District in central Orange County would depend upon poll results and the ability of a Democratic candidate to demonstrate that he or she has significant county-based support.
"Dornan will be our No. 1 target in California," said Mark Johnson of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee staff. "The die is already cast."
"Make my day," Dornan challenged. "They (Democrats) will be wasting a lot of their money and energy. If that's what they want to do, let's go. I'm ready. But I don't believe for a minute that they're serious."
While congressional Democrats appear earnest in their desire to remove Dornan, many political observers--including campaign managers from both Democratic and Republican camps--say that Dornan is considered unbeatable right now. The campaign managers add that two developments are needed to change that assessment: a poll that shows negative voter reaction to Dornan and a Democratic nominee who has raised $1.5 million or more to underwrite a challenge. Neither has occurred so far.
Meanwhile, a group of influential Orange County Democrats is flying to Washington next week to meet with Coelho and a host of other Democratic leaders. Their mission is to find support not only for targeting Dornan, but also for a possible challenger: Superior Court Judge David O. Carter, who is seriously considering entering the race. Part of the same entourage also will be seeking support for activities of the Democratic Foundation of Orange County, a $1,000-a-year volunteer booster group.
Wealthy Laguna Beach developer and Democratic financier David Stein and Irvine builder Mike Ray, who becomes chairman of the foundation in October, will be among those traveling to Washington.
As for interest in Washington concerning Dornan's congressional seat, Democratic strategists in the capital began thinking of the electoral possibilities last spring, when Dornan scuffled with Rep. Thomas J. Downey (D-N.Y.) on the House floor.
2 Other Disputes
They were even more encouraged when Dornan was accused of making an anti-Semitic statement involving Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and when Dornan got into a nationally publicized dispute with newspaper columnists and other politicians over which among them has earned the title of "war wimp."
At Democratic Congressional Committee meetings, there's talk that Dornan's image might be used to raise money nationally for Democratic candidates, according to committee members who asked not to be identified. They noted that the Republicans have used Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who was a controversial former Vietnam War protester, as a rallying point for raising money nationwide.
But some party leaders in Orange County are concerned that money raised nationally from liberal reaction to the conservative Dornan might be taken out of the county and spent on Democratic campaigns elsewhere.
"If that happens, it will break a lot of deals that are being made right now," said an Orange County Democratic Party official who requested anonymity. "But I've also heard talk along those lines."
At least two Democrats besides Carter have not ruled out their own bids for Dornan's seat.
Assemblyman Richard Robinson (D-Garden Grove), who averted disaster in the 1984 election by 256 votes, went to Washington last spring in search of support for a run against Dornan.
And Patterson, now a Washington lobbyist for savings and loan associations and other corporate clients, said he is leaning strongly against a rematch with Dornan but is "leaving the door open a crack."
Patterson also said he probably would not seek the seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors being vacated by Ralph B. Clark, who is retiring.
"I doubt that I would run for Clark's seat, although several people have talked to me about it and have encouraged me to run," Patterson said. "Ninety per cent of me says no."
Dornan said that any attempt by Democrats to raise money by using his name in a national mailing to liberal donors would only "increase my name recognition among voters."