On their national scoreboard for maintaining control of Congress, Democrats in Washington on Monday moved Orange County's proposed 46th district from the "leaning Republican" column to "tossup."
Strategists and officeholders from both major parties were forced to rethink plans for next year's Orange County elections Monday after Rep. Robert K. Dornan's (R-Garden Grove) surprise announcement that he plans to abandon his central Orange County district and run next June for a seat on the coast.
"This gives us an opportunity where we had not anticipated one," said Laura Nichols, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington. "We think the Republicans' crowing about this redistricting plan may have been a bit premature."
If the state Supreme Court gives final approval next month to its proposed redistricting maps, Dornan said Sunday that he will run in a seat that surrounds Huntington Beach, the same place Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Long Beach) expects to run.
Rohrabacher flew to Washington on Monday to meet with Dornan about alternatives to a showdown, which would take place in June.
Dornan's announcement creates one of the rarest of political phenomenon--an empty congressional seat that is not dominated by either party. The proposed 46th Congressional District--which includes Dornan's Garden Grove home--has slightly more Democratic voters than Republican, but it usually votes with the GOP. It also contains Orange County's two largest cities--Santa Ana and Anaheim--and its population of just over a half-million people is 50% Latino.
But surprisingly, some of the most likely big-name contenders took themselves out of the running Monday, leaving major questions about how a race for the proposed 46th district might take shape.
Two of the top prospects for both parties dropped out Monday--Republican county Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez and Assemblyman Tom Umberg (D-Garden Grove). Supervisor Roger R. Stanton said Sunday that he would not run for the seat.
The only person to announce his entry into the race was Republican Brian O. Bennett, Dornan's former chief of staff.
Bennett quickly lined up an impressive list of endorsements Monday including three county supervisors, four state legislators from Orange County, two local congressmen and the mayors of Garden Grove and Anaheim.
"Part of this is very lucky that people have deferred and decided not to run," said Bennett, 36, who works at Southern California Edison. "People are deciding maybe now is not the time, so I'm very fortunate and off to a good start."
Santa Ana Councilman Miguel A. Pulido Jr., a Democrat, said Monday that he is thinking about entering the race, but said he will wait until the district lines are confirmed by the state Supreme Court late next month. The court is still expected to hear testimony on its proposed district lines and could make further adjustments.
Pulido's council seat is not on the ballot next year and the city's limit on council terms prevents him from running for reelection in 1994.
"I've had a lot of folks talk to me about my interest in the seat," he said. "It's certainly something that I'm not ruling out."
Several other local officials have been mentioned as possible candidates, although none stepped forward Monday. Two are Pulido's colleagues in Santa Ana--Mayor Daniel H. Young and Councilman John Acosta, both Republicans. Young was out of the country on business Monday and an associate of Acosta's said the councilman was trying to make a decision.
The central county district was drawn specially by the Supreme Court's special masters in hopes of maximizing Latino influence in the election. Monday, Latino community leaders said they hope to have a strong Latino candidate in the race, but even if they don't, they said they will significantly influence the outcome.
"I certainly hope that there is a Latino out there who wants to participate in the political process," said Zeke Hernandez, a Santa Ana activist and state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "I think a Latino can win this seat."
The possibility of a titan battle between two of Orange County's congressmen was particularly distressing to local Republicans on Monday. Several major contributors talked to both men, hoping to avoid an expensive primary contest.
"We've got contested seats all across the board, so those dollars are precious," said Buck Johns, a major Orange County contributor who has talked to both Dornan and Rohrabacher. "Any time those monies are used to beat up another Republican, it is not an effective use. This is ridiculous."
Meanwhile, the mayor of Huntington Beach--Republican Jim Silva--said he will also challenge Dornan and Rohrabacher in the June primary. "I hope my grass-roots effort can overcome the big dollars coming in from my opponents," Silva said. "It will be a lot of work.