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California Elections / CONGRESS : Democrats May Lose Grip on Delegation : A tight South Bay race will decide whether parties evenly split 52 seats in House. Democrats went into election with 30-22 edge.


Depending on the outcome of a photo finish in a race in Los Angeles' South Bay, Democrats may lose control of California's congressional delegation for the first time since 1956.

Three Democratic incumbents--Lynn Schenk of San Diego, Dan Hamburg of Ukiah and Richard Lehman of the San Joaquin Valley--fell victim Tuesday to 1994's Republican tide.

Meanwhile, the South Bay race between Rep. Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills) and Republican challenger Susan Brooks may not be decided until a final batch of absentee ballots is counted in the next few days. Brooks, a Rancho Palos Verdes City Council member, leads by 93 votes. Her camp is expressing optimism that she will prevail because in absentee ballots counted Tuesday she had an 8 percentage point advantage.

If Brooks wins, the 52-member California delegation will be split evenly with 26 seats for each party. The Democrats went into the midterm election with a 30-22 edge.

No Republican incumbents were defeated or seriously threatened Tuesday. As bad as the picture was for Democrats, it could have been worse.

Three longtime Democratic incumbents--Anthony C. Beilenson of Woodland Hills, Vic Fazio of West Sacramento and George Brown of Colton--narrowly survived strong challenges.

Brown, the current chairman of the California delegation, had a simple analysis of the Democrats' performance in California and nationwide.

"We got walloped in spades," he said.

In other GOP triumphs in the state's House races, entertainer-turned-politician Sonny Bono won an open seat in the Palm Springs area; Ken Calvert, a first-term Republican from Riverside, was reelected despite being snared in a sex scandal, and Assemblywoman Andrea Seastrand from San Luis Obispo declared victory in the race for the seat now held by GOP Senate candidate Mike Huffington.

In the latter race, Democrat Walter Holden Capps refused to concede. Seastrand had a 969-vote lead, with an untold number of absentee ballots to be counted.

The chairman of the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, New York Rep. Bill Paxson, attributed the GOP's strong showing in California to good candidates and the slumping popularity of President Clinton.

Stuart Rothenberg, publisher of a Washington-based newsletter that analyzes congressional contests, pointed to another potential factor. The state, he said, may have witnessed a kind of mid-course correction from 1992, when Republicans were hurt badly by then-President George Bush's abandonment of his California campaign in the final weeks of his losing campaign.

"Democrats overperformed two years ago," Rothenberg said, "so it's not surprising that the Republicans regained some seats they should never have lost."

Harman was one of those surprise winners two years ago, handily defeating a better-known Republican foe in a district in which registration slightly favors Republicans.

Her race this year, which attracted national party leaders from both sides, shaped up as one of the fall's quintessential matchups--a freshman incumbent, elected on Clinton's coattails in 1992, facing a challenger who tried to capitalize on an anti-Clinton backlash.

Harman tried to walk a fine line between characterizing herself as an independent and embracing the Clinton agenda. She broadcast commercials throughout the Los Angeles Basin--the only congressional candidate to do so--in which she declared: "My party leadership isn't always happy with me." But as recently as the end of last week, she was at Clinton's side when he campaigned in Los Angeles County.

For her part, Brooks pounded Harman for backing Clinton's deficit-reduction plan.

In the other squeaker in Los Angeles County House races, Beilenson won by 49% to 47% over Republican Rich Sybert, a former official in the Administration of Gov. Pete Wilson. Beilenson, first elected in 1976, has seen his district become increasingly conservative because of changing boundary lines and changing voter attitudes.

Brown, a 22-year House member, also won by 2 percentage points in his Riverside County District. He defeated wealthy Fontana businessman Robert Guzman.

In the Sacramento area, Fazio faced the stiffest test of his 16-year House career in turning back a challenge from Republican Tim LeFever of Dixon, an attorney and former aide to former Lt. Gov. Mike Curb, by 50% to 46%.

Defeating Fazio would have been particularly sweet for the GOP--he is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The three definite Democratic losers--Schenk, Lehman and Hamburg--were facing uphill campaign fights even if there had not been a national Republican landslide. All three had opponents who were seasoned campaigners, current or former officeholders and longtime residents of their districts.

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