Democratic leaders are reassessing their chances in a once-dismissed Republican congressional seat in Orange County thanks, in part, to the coattails of Gov. Bill Clinton and the two Democratic U.S. Senate nominees.
Like most of Orange County, the 39th Congressional District is predominantly Republican and, therefore, GOP nominee Edward R. Royce was expected to win handily over Fullerton City Councilwoman Molly McClanahan.
But in Washington, Democratic strategists moved this race to their toss-up category last month after an internal campaign poll indicated that the candidates were tied.
National party officials still have not decided whether this race is close enough to invest their scarce campaign funds. But, they said, it does appear to be further evidence of the so-called "year of the woman" as well as the Democrats' newfound ability to penetrate Republican territories.
"I think we have the makings of a race," said Howard Adler, chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party. "We're not counting it won, but we consider that to be a very competitive race."
Republican campaign officials rejected the idea that the race is close, saying that their own internal polls show state Sen. Royce of Anaheim has a 12-point lead. David Gilliard, campaign manager for Royce, said his candidate is doing better in polls of the district than President Bush and California's two Republican U.S. Senate candidates, Bruce Herschensohn and John Seymour.
"Barring unforeseen circumstances, I think this is still a solid Republican district that we should win," Gilliard said. "Of all the places the Democrats could go in California, this is not one I would think they would pick to drop huge amounts of money."
McClanahan and Royce are vying for a reapportioned seat that was left vacant when Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton) bypassed a reelection bid this year to make an unsuccessful attempt at Seymour's U.S. Senate seat in the Republican primary last June.
The 39th Congressional District runs along Orange County's northern border with about a third of the territory in Los Angeles County. Republicans have a 12-point lead over Democrats among registered voters, 51% to 39%.
But Democrats point to recent polls of Orange County where Clinton and their party's two U.S. Senate nominees--Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Barbara Boxer--are locked in tight races despite the Republicans' 20-point lead in registered voters, the biggest GOP margin in the state.
The attention to McClanahan, a councilwoman in Fullerton for 10 years, began when county Democrats ordered a poll of the race. The survey, conducted by the polling firm of Social Scientific Solutions in Fullerton, found McClanahan with 34% and Royce with 32%. A third of the voters were undecided.
The poll was completed early last month, before the Republican National Convention. So today, its findings are out of date and could have changed substantially. Still, based on the results, local and national Democratic officials took notice of the race and readjusted their strategy.
Laura Nichols, a spokeswoman for the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington, said Tuesday that because of the poll, the 39th District was added to the list of 180 races nationwide in which "there is no way to tell, at this point, what the outcome will be."
She said the district is still considered Republican, but it is now being watched for signs that Democrats are within striking distance. If so, Nichols said the national party might invest money in McClanahan's campaign.
"In California, in the year of the woman, anything is possible," she said. "If this becomes a viable race and the numbers show it, McClanahan will have all the help she needs."
The Democratic committee also alerted one of its most powerful organizations for women candidates, Emily's List, about helping with contributions or other support in McClanahan's race.
"We're looking at that race very closely, but we haven't made a decision yet," said Deborah Hicks, a spokeswoman for the group, which claims about 22,000 members nationwide.
In Orange County, the Democrats' largest political action committee--the Democratic Foundation--is expected to announce its plan to back McClanahan next week.