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Sanchez Holds Slim Lead Over Dornan in 46th District Race

Congress: Democrats made major effort to support political unknown's bid to unseat conservative veteran.

November 06, 1996|GEBE MARTINEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Locked in the political fight of his life, Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) was trailing narrowly Tuesday behind Democratic challenger Loretta Sanchez, a political unknown seeking to unseat the conservative congressman in the 46th District.

Early election returns showed Sanchez holding a thin lead over Dornan, who became known in his political career for caustic attacks on liberals, gays, abortion rights supporters and other perceived leftist advocates.

Should he lose to Sanchez, a 36-year-old financial analyst who lives in Garden Grove, his defeat would be a major trophy for the national Democratic Party, which targeted Dornan in this election and pumped tens of thousands of dollars into Sanchez's campaign.

President Clinton, other Democratic Party figures, labor groups, environmentalists, advocates of abortion rights and gay rights and entertainment celebrities campaigned on Sanchez's behalf.

Sanchez's supporters erupted in cheers at their Disneyland Hotel headquarters when television reports showed her pulling ahead. She tried to subdue her emotions as backers greeted her with shouts of "congresswoman."

"We're cautiously optimistic, but it's not over till it's over," Sanchez said. "I would like to just get up and read [about a victory] in the paper."

A few miles away at the Westin South Coast Plaza hotel in Costa Mesa, a pall fell over the hotel room where Dornan and his family watched the same returns on television.

"Ohhh. It is closer than I thought it would be," Dornan said. "I know exactly what's happening. She might take Santa Ana. I'll be OK."

Santa Ana is a predominantly Latino city with a traditionally low voter turnout, where Sanchez's campaign focused a major election day effort to get voters to the polls.

Indeed, much of Sanchez's early lead was coming from Santa Ana and Anaheim.

Dornan's demeanor was a marked departure from earlier in the evening when he boasted to reporters, "I'm not going to quit until I get term-limited.

"Her negative ads took a bigger chunk out of me than I thought it would," Dornan said. He leafed through a Gideon Bible and jotted down a passage from Psalm 112: "Happy is the man who loves the Lord. His posterity shall be mighty upon the Earth."

Three minor party candidates--J. Carlos Aguirre, 48, with the Natural Law Party; Thomas E. Reimer, 43, the Libertarian nominee, and Lawrence J. Stafford, 69, the Reform Party candidate-- were trailing, but together collected enough votes to make the outcome of this race uncertain until almost all ballots were counted.

The contest drew national attention, not only because it involved Dornan, one of the most colorful members of Congress, known for his harsh criticism of Clinton, but also because Sanchez's well-financed challenge was being played out in Orange County, the heart of Republican conservatism.

A Democrat has not represented any of Orange County in Congress since 1984. That was when Dornan moved to Orange County from Los Angeles County to win the seat in the blue-collar, ethnically diverse district that includes Santa Ana, Anaheim and Garden Grove.

Rallying behind Dornan as the votes were counted was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), who said, "I don't care how much the liberals throw at us in Orange County. The conservatives are still going to win and Bob Dornan is going to win too."

For her part, Sanchez and her volunteers walked precincts and worked phone banks until the polls closed, urging both Democrats and Republicans to get out and vote for her. Campaign staffers targeted 70 working-class precincts with heavy Democratic registrations for a last minute get-out-the-vote effort.

A number of campaign workers were Republicans who did not live in the district but decided to work for Sanchez's election out of dissatisfaction with Dornan's ideology.

"I was born and raised in Orange County, and I can't stand Bob Dornan," said Julie Siebel, 34, a registered Republican from Irvine. "He doesn't seem to be interested in women and social issues. He isn't interested in Orange County."

Never facing each other in a conventional debate, the candidates exchanged slurs and insults through paid media, and their surrogates literally argued on the streets.

Dornan mailed a campaign "hit piece" that carried a distorted photograph of Sanchez that her partisans said made her look like a vampire. Sanchez's husband, Stephen Brixey, responded by tearing down one of Dornan's campaign signs--an act caught by Dornan's son, Mark, who made a citizen's arrest of Brixey. Police issued Brixey a misdemeanor citation and a court date is pending.

As late as election night, Dornan said his wife, Sallie, and their daughters would file a lawsuit against Sanchez over a last-minute campaign mailer that he said implied that a member of his family had received an abortion.

Sanchez's campaign manager, John Schallman, acknowledged that the campaign was behind the flier but insisted that he did not know if Sanchez had approved it.

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