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Dornan Clinging to Lead Over Sanchez

Election: Incumbent's razor-thin margin still could disappear when absentee ballots are tallied.

November 07, 1996|GEBE MARTINEZ and PETER M. WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Bruised but not broken, Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) celebrated victory Wednesday, though the outcome in his reelection race hinged on whether thousands of absentee ballots would overturn his 233-vote margin over Democratic challenger Loretta Sanchez.

The final vote tally in the central Orange County congressional district will not be known until next Wednesday, when the late ballots are counted, election officials said.

"I thought I had done it all in politics, but I never had survived a cliffhanger . . . and now I have," said Dornan, the conservative congressman and foe of liberal causes who has survived numerous challenges by Democrats.

The unopened ballots gave Sanchez, a 36-year-old financial analyst, a glimmer of hope that she could still unseat Dornan.

"I've said the whole time it was going to be a small margin either way," Sanchez said Wednesday morning while relaxing at her Garden Grove home, after a mostly sleepless night spent waiting for returns. "I feel cautiously optimistic. Two hundred and thirty votes is nothing when you compare [that] to 6,000 to 10,000 [votes] outstanding." Her campaign estimated the absentee ballots would number about 6,700.

Wylie A. Aitken, head of the Orange County Democratic Foundation, maintained Dornan should "absolutely not" begin celebrating, because the late ballots could turn in Sanchez's favor.

Though the race exposed Dornan's weaknesses, the conservative icon maintained his trademark bravado, vowing to begin the next term with an impeachment resolution against President Clinton, "a triple draft-dodger who just got a second term."

In Washington, as Dornan's staffers fielded telephone calls from supporters, his spokesman, Richard Diamond, predicted Dornan would remain victorious. "We're all still waiting to see if we have a job," Diamond acknowledged, "but we're in good shape, I'm sure."

Orange County GOP Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes said the Republican Party was "delighted that Bob has apparently won" and once again proven he is in tune with voters in his district.

Rosalyn Lever, the Orange County registrar of voters, said there were about 65,000 absentee ballots from across the county still to be processed during the next week. She was unable to predict the number of ballots from the 46th District, which includes Santa Ana, Anaheim and Garden Grove, but added that in a race this close, "there's always the potential" that the outcome could be reversed.

Beginning early Wednesday, more than a dozen volunteers from both camps hovered over county election workers as they struck absentee ballots with signatures that did not match the voter registration cards.

The blue-collar district, which is 50% Latino and 12% Asian, contains voting precincts that have a history of Republicans claiming possible voter fraud by illegal voters, and Democrats accusing Republicans of voter intimidation tactics. Lever said the registrar's office received no complaints on election day.

But with the final outcome unknown, both the Republican and Democratic national congressional campaign committees dispatched staffers to monitor absentee ballot processing.

"We have mobilized a team of folks to make sure no elections are stolen," said Republican spokesman Craig Vieth. Added Brett Nemeth, a local GOP volunteer who was coordinating the ballot check: "Dornan won this election, and we want to make sure it's not stolen by any wrongdoing."

Sanchez supporters said they were checking into reports of possible voter intimidation.

"What we're hearing out of [Dornan's district] is extremely worrisome and we will be diligent in pursuing whatever measures are needed to ensure that each voter's ballot is treated in a nondiscriminatory, aboveboard manner and is accurately recorded," said the Democrats' political director, Rob Engel.

Sanchez's campaign manager, John Shallman, also complained that Republicans were challenging absentee ballots with Latino surnames, a charge Nemeth strongly denied.

Ironically, Sanchez suffered the same fate of previous Democratic challengers to Dornan's seat: the precincts with some of the highest Latino voter registration had the lowest turnout, according to a Times analysis of the ballots cast.

In the last presidential election, in 1992 when Dornan beat Democrat Robert Banuelos by nine percentage points, the turnout in the district was 110,806 votes. This year, the vote total is expected to be around 90,000, a number that disappointed Sanchez.

"If we lose by 12 votes, people will realize that they could have made a difference," Sanchez said, adding that such voter apathy is a national trend that even her best efforts could not reverse.

Dornan, meanwhile, said his lead was due to his career-long stance against communism. "My strongest city, Garden Grove, is the part of the district where Cambodian Americans, Laotian Americans and Vietnamese Americans and Korean Americans live," he said.

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