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California and the West | NEWS ANALYSIS

Status Quo Hot Ticket in House Races

Politics: Voters' anti-incumbent sentiment of recent years seems to have waned, analysts say, suggesting continued GOP control of Congress.

April 09, 1998|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Incumbent, it seems, is no longer a four-letter word.

After three preseason congressional contests in which stability prevailed, 1998 is shaping up to be a good year for the status quo--and, by extension, for those now in office.

For Republicans, that suggests continued control of Congress. For Democrats, that could mean avoiding the big losses that typically coincide with the sixth year a party controls the White House.

For most officeholders, who battened down through the 1990s as voters lashed out and incumbents sank, the calm marks a political sea change.

"The sentiment is, 'Nothing terrible is happening, so don't mess it up,' " said political analyst Jack Pitney of Claremont McKenna College, who cited the year's runaway box office smash to explain this steady-as-she-goes sentiment.

"Too many people have seen 'Titanic,' " Pitney quipped. "The Titanic got in trouble because the ship went too fast and took too many risks. Nobody wants to take risks, they just want to go slow and keep on an even keel."

The results of California's two special congressional contests Tuesday suggest as much.

In Riverside County, widow Mary Bono seized 64% of the vote to easily defeat Democrat Ralph Waite and capture the seat held by her late husband, Republican Sonny Bono. In the Bay Area, Democrat Barbara Lee of Oakland won 67% of the vote against three unsung opponents to win the seat of her old boss and political mentor, Ronald V. Dellums, who retired in February.

Last month, Democrat Lois Capps handily won the Santa Barbara seat vacated by the death of her husband, Walter, in the first of the nation's three pre-primary contests.

Although no incumbents were involved in any of those races, the results could easily be seen as a vote for continuity. There were no surprises: Democrats won the two seats held by Democrats and a Republican won the open Republican seat.

As it stands, Democrats need a net gain of 11 seats to win back control of the House in November. California, a perennial battleground, features the usual assortment of targeted congressional contests. In the end, however, strategists for both parties concede that once the smoke clears, things in California will probably look pretty much the way they do now.

"In 1994, we lost three seats. In 1996, the Republicans lost three seats," said Bob Mulholland, political director of the state Democratic Party. "My guess is that at the end of the year, it will be about the same, or maybe one party or the other possibly gaining a seat."

Democrats enjoy a 29-23 edge in the state's 52-seat congressional delegation. Looking ahead to November, analysts in both parties agree there are few genuinely competitive races anywhere in California.

In the 1st Congressional District, stretching from the northern reaches of the San Francisco Bay Area to the Oregon border, state Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) is widely expected to pick up the seat now held by Rep. Frank Riggs (R-Windsor). Thompson faces token opposition. Riggs, meanwhile, is waging an uphill, roll-the-dice campaign for the U.S. Senate, effectively sidestepping Thompson's challenge.

The seat now held by Rep. Jay C. Kim (R-Diamond Bar) could be competitive for Democrats in the fall if Kim, serving a home detention sentence for campaign finance violations, edges out his three opponents in the GOP primary. Otherwise, Republicans are expected to easily hold the seat, representing parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties.

Democrats face the prospect of losing two seats opened up by retiring incumbents Vic Fazio of Sacramento and Jane Harman of Torrance. Both seats were tough for Democrats, given the strong Republican registration; they will be even tougher without an incumbent to defend the turf.

Each of the major parties has its usual wish lists.

Democrats vow to target Republican Brian Bilbray in San Diego. Republicans will mount their biennial efforts to dislodge Democrats George E. Brown Jr. in San Bernardino and Brad Sherman in the western San Fernando Valley. GOP leaders also speak of ousting Democrat Loretta Sanchez--the surprise winner of 1996--in Orange County, but privately minimize their chances if former Rep. Bob Dornan wins the nomination and earns a rematch.

In short, equilibrium seems to be the watchword, a strange sensation for political veterans more used to the political vertigo of the past several bumpy years.

Recalling the most acrid moments, 10-term Democrat Robert T. Matsui of Sacramento described constituent meetings where "the atmosphere, the tone, the questions were all very negative."

"But this year, people are happy to see you, they treat you as a friend rather than an adversary," Matsui said. "It's quite unbelievable. In fact, I've never seen anything like it in my 20 years in Washington and seven years on the Sacramento City Council."

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