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In the Land of Lincoln : In 1962, Club Began Funding Candidates; Its Money Still Talks, but Fewer Are Listening

REPUBLICAN REIGN. Orange County conservatives and the pursuit of power . FIRST OF FIVE PARTS


One night in 1962, the titans of Orange County industry sat around a dinner table, screening their wives' Christmas card lists.

Just days earlier, Richard Nixon, weakened after a vicious primary fight against right-wing members of the John Birch Society, had suffered a humiliating loss to Democrat Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Sr. in the gubernatorial election.

In an act of near desperation, these corporate leaders were looking for wealthy Republican men to bring a business-like order and moderation to local politics by funding their own candidates. Together they created what would soon be named the Lincoln Club of Orange County.

"Any of you know Joe so-and-so?" they asked around the table, according to Robert F. Beaver, who was there with familiar names such as Knott and Fluor. "You don't know anything bad about him, do you?"

Nearly 34 years later, the Lincoln Club is still trying to maintain political order by selecting and funding conservative Republican candidates. But internal squabbles that have put club members' money on opposing sides of political campaigns and the rise of wealthy and powerful Republicans who are not beholden to the club have reduced its clout considerably.

"I have a lot of friends in the Lincoln Club and have great respect for them," said Ken Khachigian, a former Reagan White House speech writer who now heads the Bob Dole for President campaign in California. "I also think that the stories about the Lincoln Club being the political boss in Orange County or that you have to have [its backing] to succeed--those are overdone."

Republican caucuses in the Legislature have strengthened their roles in raising money and recruiting candidates, eclipsing the Lincoln Club's influence. State Senate Republican Leader Rob Hurtt of Garden Grove--himself a wealthy backer of conservative candidates--was elected and became a legislative leader without the club's money. Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, also of Garden Grove, had little support from the club.

The ability of Lincoln Club members to give money to political candidates--the main source of the organization's power as a forerunner of the political action committee--has declined, along with the fortunes of local land developers who were once the backbone of the group. Politicians say the Lincoln Club is now just another special interest group on their required list of rounds.

Lincoln Club members traditionally were counted on to give federal, state and local campaigns $1 million to $2 million every two years, in addition to their annual dues, which also go to political candidates and organizations.

But of the top 10 Orange County donors to federal campaigns from 1991 to 1995, only two were Lincoln Club members, according to a study conducted for The Times by the Virginia-based Campaign Study Group. They were businessman George Argyros, who gave only to Republican committees, and the Irvine Co., which contributes to Republican and Democratic candidates and owns a company membership in the club.

That is a dramatic change from past years, when Lincoln Club members dominated contributor lists. During the 1988 campaign, for example, five members belonged to an elite national group of Republicans who gave at least $100,000 toward the party's "Team 100," which supports GOP candidates for federal office. By 1995, only Argyros had maintained his membership.

Still, the Lincoln Club remains an influential force. With a less exclusive list of 350 members--five times its original roster--the organization now relies on a broader base of lawyers, auto dealers, small-business operators and others, instead of a handful of wealthy land developers.

Lincoln Club members are still among the top givers to state and local candidates, but land developers, hurt by sizable losses, have been overshadowed by religious conservative multimillionaire Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. and Hurtt, owner of a Garden Grove container company.

Earlier this year, Lincoln Club membership was expanded and annual dues were raised to $1,500 to maintain the club's role in campaign fund-raising, leaders said. Lincoln Club dues alone accounted for about $1 million in campaign contributions from 1991 to 1995.

Prominent county Republicans, such as Santa Ana businessman Doy Henley and Newport Beach developer William Buck Johns III, remain top club leaders. Instead of just giving money, the club now conducts polls, interviews candidates and takes positions on local issues.

As a result, the club is still seen as an important GOP player, even if it no longer lives up to the stature it once had.

"I think people gave us that clout. I don't think we ever aspired to it or felt we were deserving of it," said Beaver, who served as the club's treasurer for 28 years.


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