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ELECTIONS '96

Absentee Ballots Key to Dornan Cliffhanger

Congress: Voters oust two other conservative GOP incumbents and shift control of state delegation to Democrats.

November 07, 1996|FAYE FIORE and JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — California voters turned out two GOP incumbents and gave Orange County Republican Robert K. Dornan a jangling wake-up call in an election that threw control of the state's massive congressional delegation to the Democrats.

The veteran Dornan, of Garden Grove, led Democratic challenger Loretta Sanchez by just 233 votes with 10,000 absentee ballots still uncounted. The result is bound to be contested.

Freshman Andrea Seastrand of the Santa Barbara area and two-term Republican Bill Baker from the east San Francisco Bay Area were knocked out in races that seemed to rebuke their conservative records and links to House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"The Republicans really took it in the shorts," said Los Angeles-based GOP consultant Allan Hoffenblum. "The hard-core right did very poorly in California."

Despite those setbacks in California, Republicans nationally managed to maintain control of both the House and Senate. They picked up at least one seat in the Senate, for a margin of at least 54-45. One Senate seat was still undecided in Oregon, where officials are counting a large number of absentee ballots.

Although a handful of close races are still in doubt, Democrats are expected to pick up nine seats in the House--they needed 19 to take control. That would cut the Republican majority to 227 to 208, including one independent who usually votes with the Democrats and a freshman independent who is expected to side with the GOP. That gives the House the narrowest margin of control since 1953.

Although GOP control of the House is not in doubt, the final head count will be in flux for weeks. In Texas, three House seats affected by a court redistricting decision earlier this year will not be decided until a Dec. 10 runoff. Elsewhere, recounts have been demanded in several tight races, including one in suburban Philadelphia where freshman Rep. Jon Fox (R-Pa.) apparently won by only 10 votes.

In another close race, House Ethics Committee Chairwoman Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) stunned both parties by nearly losing her seat. Her Democratic opponent had accused Johnson of going too easy on Gingrich (R-Ga.) in the ethics panel's investigation of him.

Democrats' dent in the GOP majority grew significantly in late-breaking races in the West. In Washington state, Democrats knocked off three freshman Republicans--Reps. Linda Smith, Jack Metcalf and Randy Tate--giving back to the Democrats a majority in a delegation where they had taken heavy losses in 1994.

In California, two hotly contested open seats in the San Fernando Valley-Ventura County areas were held by their respective parties. Voters elected Democrat Brad Sherman, a CPA and member of the State Board of Equalization, to succeed retiring Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson of Woodland Hills. Republican Assemblyman James Rogan captured the seat long occupied by retiring Carlos J. Moorhead in the district that includes Glendale, Pasadena and Burbank

Long-serving 76-year-old Democrat George E. Brown Jr. of San Bernardino, one of the GOP's perennial targets, claimed victory for a 17th term. But with a margin of just 1,150 votes and thousands of absentee ballots still untallied, Republican challenger Linda Wilde could still be in the running.

The bombastic Dornan, who had predicted a landslide even after a puzzling presidential bid left him politically spent, sat in a closed hotel bar before dawn Wednesday and mocked his tenuous victory. "Forget B-1 Bob. I'm now Landslide Dornan," he bayed.

Seastrand, a conservative freshman devoted to the revolutionary course charted by Gingrich, was considered one of the five most endangered Republicans in the nation. Democratic challenger Walter Capps, a UC Santa Barbara religion professor and Clinton loyalist, beat her in a rematch of their 1994 contest, capturing 49% of the vote to her 43%.

"She showed no inclination toward moderation and she paid for it," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

Another apparent conservative casualty was Baker, who fell to Democrat Ellen Tauscher. A wealthy investment banker, Tauscher used $1.7 million of her personal fortune to outspend the incumbent 2 to 1. Baker was unwilling to concede the race Wednesday with a 5,536-vote margin and about 18,000 absentee ballots outstanding.

Unlike two years ago when the GOP stormed several Democratic incumbents out of office and frightened others, there appeared to be no rhyme or reason to the outcome this time. Observers called it a "status quo election" both nationally and in California.

Rep. Vic Fazio of West Sacramento, third-ranking in the Democratic national leadership and his party's most endangered senior member, beat Republican Tim LeFever 54% to 41%, his widest margin of victory since the district was redrawn to his detriment in 1990.

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