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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS : CONGRESS : Republicans See Chance for Gains in the House

May 16, 1994|JAMES BORNEMEIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — With the California economy remaining stagnant and the Clinton White House careening from accomplishment to controversy, state Republicans hope to use the June 7 primary as the steppingstone to capturing three to five House seats in November.

The GOP plans to hammer away at candidate Clinton's vanished promise of a middle-class tax cut, continuing problems over illegal immigration and queasiness over health care reform. It sees rich opportunities in the Clinton tax hike and coolly calculates the potential damage from the Whitewater investigation and a sexual harassment suit filed against the President.

And they have a great ally in history.

The President's party has lost seats in the House of Representatives in every midterm election since World War II, and the California delegation has mirrored the national trend. Since 1974, only in President Reagan's 1986 midterm election were state Republicans able to stave off losses.

"Clinton is undoubtedly on a four-year schedule to strengthen his own chances for reelection," says Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), a representative to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which raises funds for party candidates. "(But) at midterm, he's extremely vulnerable. The changing promises are still fresh in the memory, and the abrogation of them is fresher still."

Cox predicts at least three additional Republican faces in the sprawling 52-member California delegation, which would reduce the Democratic majority to a thin 27-to-25 edge. "But it's not at all unlikely that we could gain five," he said.

Democrats hope to blunt that strategy by keeping House races focused on individual district issues and away from the President's wobbly popularity.

Even so, Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said as many as 25 Democratic seats could be lost nationwide--a number some observers view as a knowing exaggeration.

"Clinton is still relatively popular in California," said Fazio. "He has maintained that by constant emphasis on issues of importance (to the state). But in no way will he be a litmus test. We won't be on the defensive. We could pick up several seats, we could lose a couple."

A swing factor that could aid both parties during the election season is the vigorous gubernatorial campaign among Gov. Pete Wilson and Democrats Kathleen Brown, John Garamendi and Tom Hayden.

Two years ago, Republicans felt that the early Bush abandonment of California left their candidates twisting in the wind. Now, that thundering silence has been replaced by the pugnacious Wilson's bristling lectures on GOP campaign themes.

Democrats, on the other hand, hope that the interest stirred up by the governor's race will translate into increased registration and voter turnout.

The other high-profile statewide race belongs to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is seeking her first six-year term. Having lost to Wilson in the 1990 governor's contest, Feinstein two years later knocked off John Seymour, whom Wilson had appointed to fill his shoes.

Freshman Rep. Michael Huffington of Santa Barbara, who is using his vast personal wealth to make a move on the Senate, will almost certainly be her Republican foe.

Two veteran members of the state congressional delegation, Reps. Don Edwards (D-San Jose) and Al McCandless (R-La Quinta), have announced their retirement. Huffington's is the third open seat. The other 49 members of the California House delegation, the largest in U.S. history, are up for reelection.

Two years ago redistricting, retirements and virulent anti-incumbent sentiment created a record 15 open seats, and California sent 17 newcomers to Congress. But this year, despite the usual midterm jitters, most California incumbents appear to have free passes punched through to November. Twenty-four face no primary opponents from within their party.

But two freshman members face perilous primaries. Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Riverside) is ensnared in a sex scandal, and Rep. Dan Hamburg (D-Ukiah) faces a tough primary challenge from former Rep. Doug Bosco, who represented the district for eight years.

Looking forward to the November general election, the number of vulnerable incumbents increases.

Top Democratic targets are Calvert, should he survive the primary, and Reps. John T. Doolittle of Rocklin and Richard W. Pombo of Tracy.

Calvert won one of the closest elections in the country two years ago, sneaking past Democrat Mark Takano by a mere 519 votes. Community college trustee Takano is again favored to win his party's nomination, and Calvert's Republican challenger, UC Riverside professor Joseph Khoury, is expected to run a stronger campaign this time around. But most damaging is Calvert's admission--after months of denial--that he had sex in his car last November with a woman who police say is a known prostitute.

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