Dave Carter rarely gets more than a befuddled nod and a polite smile from the voters he meets as he trudges door to door, selling his long-shot congressional campaign in Orange County. But the response was different when he stopped by one Garden Grove home recently.
"Hi, my name's Dave Carter. I'm a judge, and I'm running for Congress the old-fashioned way against Bob Dornan," he told Barbara Highbarker when she answered the doorbell.
"You're not as silly as he is, are you?" Highbarker shot back skeptically.
Technically, Dornan, a Republican who has earned a reputation among House colleagues as the chamber's most flamboyant and eccentric member, is not Carter's immediate opponent. But Dornan's fiery persona and ultraconservative brand of politics loom large over the 38th District Democratic primary contest between Carter and veteran Assemblyman Richard Robinson (D-Garden Grove), lending a rare bit of color to an otherwise bland round of congressional primary elections in California on June 3.
Indeed, gerrymandering of the state's 45 congressional districts by Democratic map makers has made it all but impossible to unseat incumbents, thereby discouraging most of the serious challengers.
Statewide, none of California's 27 Democratic congressmen is faced with any serious primary election challenge, and few need fear being toppled by Republicans in November. Similarly, while three of the 18 Republican congressmen are not seeking to return and Dornan's reelection remains a question mark, the rest of the GOP contingent appears safe.
Although they must face each other first, both Robinson, a gruff but effective Sacramento insider, and Carter, a no-nonsense Superior Court judge with no political experience, have made it clear that their real target is Dornan, who has gained national attention after a well-publicized physical altercation with another congressman on the House floor and several controversial outbursts.
Both Democrats Carter and Robinson are hoping that voters in the conservative area will be disillusioned by Dornan's antics and will return the district to Democratic control after two years in GOP hands. Carter asserts that he can lend a fresh perspective to Orange County's needs, while Robinson says his years of legislative know-how make him better suited to represent the district than an opponent who is a political novice.
Indeed, Carter is only beginning to learn the fine points of running for office. During one of his recent walks in a low-income neighborhood, Carter rang a doorbell and introduced himself as a judge, just as he had done with Highbarker. Before he could speak another word, two men in the house scampered out the back door.
In other districts, the few primary election races that have attracted attention can be linked to vacancies or to flukes. For example, an unusual Democratic tussle is taking place in Orange County's staunchly Republican 40th District, where Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach) seems firmly entrenched despite persistent criticism of his penchant for flying around the world at taxpayer expense.
Late last month, Democratic stalwarts discovered that the only candidate who met the March 7 filing deadline for the party's primary in the 40th District was Art Hoffmann, a sympathizer of right-wing extremist Lyndon LaRouche. Bruce Sumner, the red-faced county chairman, then launched a write-in campaign against Hoffmann, even while acknowledging that chances of ultimately dislodging Badham are slim.
Sumner argued that to let a LaRouche loyalist become the official Democratic standard-bearer by default would aggravate an already serious inferiority complex suffered by party members in the heavily Republican county.
"It would make them feel even more like they are nothing," he said candidly in a recent interview.
Nonetheless, despite the Democrats' problems, Badham cannot automatically chalk up his sixth straight election victory. He is being challenged in the GOP primary by management consultant and Young Republican leader Nathan Rosenberg, whose brother, Werner Erhard, founded the 1970s self-awareness group known as est. But Rosenberg's campaign has angered Republican leaders, making it difficult for the political neophyte to raise funds or solicit help from seasoned strategists.
Meanwhile, the trio of Republican dropouts--retiring Rep. Gene Chappie of Roseville and Reps. Ed Zschau of Los Altos and Bobbi Fiedler of Northridge, both of whom are seeking their party's nomination for Democrat U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston's seat--all represent districts that most political observers think are safely in GOP hands.