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DECISION '98 / THE FINAL COUNT

With Voting Over, Lesson for Candidates Is Centrism

Congress: Hard-line conservatism is rebuffed. California delegation will be increasingly bipartisan.

November 05, 1998|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The polls had hardly closed and Robert K. Dornan was at his postelection rally spitting fire, calling President Clinton a "degenerate" and the Republicans who opposed his quest to reclaim his Orange County congressional seat "wimps." He would go to bed that night a loser.

Another county away in Glendale, the more moderate and measured Republican Rep. James Rogan was analyzing the results of a race that was closer than some anticipated. "I never expected to win big," he said modestly, and went to bed before all the precincts were counted. He woke up a winner.

Such is the moral of California's congressional elections the morning after, a repudiation of fire-breathing conservatism, an endorsement of centrism in politics and tone.

While the Democrats nearly swept the statewide ticket from governor on down, the Republicans made a net gain of one seat in the 52-member congressional delegation, the nation's largest. The gain increased the Republican majority to 28-24.

"The Republicans took a bath," GOP consultant Allan Hoffenblum said glumly. "But in any landslide only the strong survive, and if the candidates in the congressional seats hadn't been centrists, they would have lost."

Californians reelected every congressional incumbent on the ballot along with five new members--three Republicans and two Democrats--each of them relatively middle of the road.

"They are going back to legislate, not to preach," Hoffenblum said.

Mighty if for no other reason than sheer size--one in eight members of Congress is a Californian--the delegation that goes to the 106th Congress will be increasingly bipartisan at its core. A once fractious group, the new delegation is expected to continue its recent progress in coming together on issues such as transportation and disaster relief.

As a result of Tuesday's vote, California will wield unprecedented control of the House agenda after district lines are redrawn after the 2000 census and the state adds more congressional seats. And it will play a major role in whether Democrats reclaim the House majority in 2002.

With all the votes counted, the GOP prevailed in key seats, some by a whisker. Incumbent Republicans Rogan and Brian P. Bilbray of San Diego won by a mere 3 points with neither garnering more than 50% of the vote.

"That puts the Republicans on notice for 2000," said Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Sacramento). "A number of strong Democrats are going to start to emerge for those seats."

Among the freshmen-elect is Steve Kuykendall, who edged out Democrat Janice Hahn for a Republican gain with the Torrance seat vacated by Democratic Rep. Jane Harman.

In another party switch, millionaire Republican Doug Ose outspent and soundly beat Democratic water rights attorney Sandie Dunn for the Sacramento seat held by retiring Democrat Rep. Vic Fazio.

The close margins in several races left some Democrats wondering if the party was asleep with the switch on, failing to foresee the storm that crossed the nation.

"We underemphasized," one congressional Democrat said. "We had some real shots there."

But looming in the near future is another mega-shot at taking back the GOP House majority, which is now as few as six seats. The election of Gray Davis as California governor means that a Democrat will preside over the redrawing of the state's congressional districts after the census. And some predict that as many as six Democratic seats could be created, going a long way toward closing the gap.

"The most important House race in America is the governorship of California" said Georgia Rep. John Linder, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

"You can legitimately say that California comes close to providing enough seats for the Democrats to take over" by drawing more Latino districts in Los Angeles and eliminating three GOP seats, said Tony Quinn, a GOP reapportionment expert.

Meanwhile, the Republican hold on the House poses notable advantages for California next year with the ascension of Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas) to chairman of the all-powerful Rules Committee.

Although the significance is often lost on those outside the Beltway, the influence is huge--the Rules Committee is a sort of traffic cop for nearly all legislation that comes to the House floor, the body that determines whether and how each bill is debated.

With Dreier at the helm, issues dear to California probably will move to the top of the list, including immigration and education.

"This is the first time in history that a congressman from California will be chairman of one of the three major House committees," said Brad Smith, Dreier's chief of staff. "Tuesday's election increased California's clout in the U.S. Congress and, literally because of David Dreier's position, California will be in a position to help set the national agenda."

But the delegation lost some clout with the retirement of Fazio--a veteran on the Appropriations Committee, which controls Congress' purse strings.

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