The Orange County fight between volatile Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) and his cocky, acerbic Democratic challenger, Assemblyman Richard Robinson, has always been expected to be the most combative of this year's races for California's 45 congressional seats.
But when the campaign began after the June 3 primary, everyone--even the candidates themselves--figured that the combat would center on something a bit more up-to-date than the Korean and Vietnam wars.
The state's hottest congressional contest has evolved into a macho battle of would-be Rambos trying to bad-mouth each other's old war stories. Robinson claims that Dornan, a peacetime Air Force pilot, rewrote his resume to falsely imply service in both conflicts. Dornan denies it but accuses Robinson of hyping his service record in Vietnam.
The stuff of meaningful political dialogue it is not, but the Dornan-Robinson skirmish has produced the only fireworks and uncertainty in an otherwise bleak and predictable field of congressional contests. Though Californians elect more than one-tenth of the membership of the House of Representatives every two years, the races rarely produce any surprises because gerrymandering of district lines after the 1980 census has given incumbents of both parties a virtual lock on their seats.
Only Swing District Left
Democrats, who are responsible for the creative political cartography, hold 27 of those seats while Republicans have 18. If there is any change in that mix, it probably would come in the 38th District now represented by Dornan, which Democratic map makers admit was the only swing district left under the redistricting plan drawn up by the late Democratic Rep. Phil Burton of San Francisco. Two years ago, Dornan swiped the seat from Democratic control after a costly and bruising battle with then-incumbent Rep. Jerry Patterson.
To be sure, the state delegation will feature at least three new faces--probably all Republicans--when the 100th Congress convenes in January because three current GOP lawmakers are not running for reelection. Rep. Eugene A. Chappie is retiring from his seat in the far northern 2nd District, while Reps. Bobbi Fiedler of Northridge and Ed Zschau of Los Altos passed up reelection bids when they battled in a crowded candidate field for the Republican Senate nomination in the June primary. Zschau won the contest and is locked in a tough fight with Democratic incumbent Alan Cranston.
Veteran Simi Valley Mayor Elton Gallegly, a devoted admirer of President Reagan, is a cinch to beat his Democratic rival and take Fiedler's place in the staunchly Republican 21st District, which sprawls across parts of the San Fernando Valley and Southern Ventura County. Saratoga Assemblyman Ernie Konnyu, a 49-year-old Hungarian emigre who championed "workfare" legislation requiring some public aid recipients to work in exchange for welfare, is the odds-on favorite to replace Zschau in the Silicon Valley-centered 12th District. And three-term Assemblyman Wally Herger, who fits the conservative mold long preferred by 2nd District voters, is expected to take Chappie's place despite a stiff challenge from Democrat Stephen C. Swindiman, a Shasta County supervisor and restaurateur.
The much-ballyhooed Dornan-Robinson race has only caught fire in recent weeks as both tough-talking candidates began hammering away at each other with personal attacks and a blizzard of political mailers.
Targeted for Defeat
Mindful of the marginal Democratic registration advantage in the district and Dornan's fiery, eccentric personality, Democratic leaders had targeted him for defeat as they funneled large amounts of cash and expert help into the Robinson campaign. Yet it has been Dornan who has taken the offensive for much of the race, stressing his self-appointed role as President Reagan's "best friend" in foreign policy and touting the trips he has taken since 1985 to Syria, Nicaragua, Ethiopia and other international hot spots.
Robinson, a savvy Assembly veteran, is the handpicked candidate of the powerful political organization headed by Democratic Reps. Howard L. Berman of Panorama City and Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles. The campaign has scored Dornan's globe-trotting and "inattention" to local issues, while stressing Robinson's own achievements as a watchdog for Orange County interests in Sacramento.
As a counter to those charges, Dornan has pointed to an array of federal grants, some in the millions of dollars, that he has delivered to the district. He points in particular to a recent congressional vote for a $16-billion public works bill that included $1.09 billion in funds for a flood control project on the Santa Ana River. Dornan's role in winning approval for the long-sought project was minimal, but he happened to represent the district during the year when Congress and the White House settled a longstanding dispute that had blocked authorization of any new federally funded water projects for more than a decade.