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ELECTION '98: The Candidates and the Issues

Dornan Pitches Self as 'True Latino'

Politics: Garden Grove Republican who upset many with ballot-fraud allegations now is courting minority vote.

October 10, 1998|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Walking the streets of Santa Ana's barrios and sprinkling his speeches with broken Spanish, Robert K. Dornan is out to do what his foes say he can't: woo Latino voters away from U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez.

The Garden Grove Republican has opened a satellite campaign office in Santa Ana to help him win a chunk of the largely Catholic Latino vote. Last month, he peppered the central Orange County district with his first major mailer of the fall campaign: an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the cover with graphic portrayals of abortion procedures inside.

"I'm the only true Latino in this race," Dornan has taken to saying, contending that his Catholic upbringing and emphasis on family values give him more in common with Latino voters than Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) has. The congresswoman's Mexican American heritage helped her pick up overwhelming Latino backing two years ago, but she veers away from Catholic orthodoxy in her support of a woman's right to choose abortion.

Democrats chortle at the idea of Dornan going for the Latino vote. In Congress, he voted against many of the social and educational programs that tens of thousands of Latinos in his district rely on.

And many Latinos aren't taking kindly to Dornan's overtures, especially the mailer depicting one of Mexico's most revered saints next to images many consider offensive.

"I threw it in the trash immediately," said Alejandro Hernandez, a Chilean-born businessman who lives in Santa Ana with his wife and young daughter. "I said, 'You know what? You're playing to an emotion. You're not playing to me as a voter. You're saying all Latinos fit this mold of traditional family, traditional large number of kids, traditionally very religious.' But it's not that anymore for a lot of us. . . . Latinos come in all colors and sizes."

Dornan himself could undermine his effort to appeal to Latinos by continuing to warn about voter fraud, an accusation Latinos say is targeted at them.

But the challenger and his Republican allies believe the new tactic can work. Dornan figures that he can win if he can pick up even a fraction of the Latino vote by appealing to Latino Catholics on hot-button issues such as abortion and still maintain support among Republican whites.

Dornan has "all this other baggage that may make this strategy unworkable, but he's got to try to appeal to Latino voters," said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at UC San Diego.

"It's recognizing that when you go hunting, you go where the ducks are. Suddenly, these people are voting, and they're not voting for him, and he wants to see if he can get some of those votes himself."

Setting Sights on 5% of the Latino Vote

Dornan isn't the only Republican politician making a play for Latino votes this year. This spring, the GOP started making a concerted effort statewide to end its estrangement from the Latino community. According to state voter registration data, 64% of registered voters with Latino surnames are Democrats. Just 19.5% are Republicans.

Dornan figures that just 5% of the Latino vote could win him back the 46th Congressional District seat he lost two years ago by 984 votes. Latino surnamed residents make up 23% of registered voters in the district, a larger percentage than any other minority ethnic group.

To pick up enough Latino support, Dornan has a long road ahead. Two years ago, Sanchez won in all but three precincts in which Latinos were a majority, according to research done for The Times by political analyst Dick Lewis of Newport Beach.

Sanchez has kept her attention on Latinos and her district, making it tougher on Dornan to cut into her base. She has traveled home from Washington more than 80 times, appearing at a broad range of events from Santa Ana community fiestas to union barbecues.

Dornan also has to overcome Latino animosity over his fierce campaign to regain his seat, a battle in which he alleged that hundreds of noncitizens, mainly Latinos, voted illegally. An investigation into the charges by the House Oversight Committee found that more than 700 votes were cast improperly, not enough to overturn the election.

The challenge was widely perceived by Latinos as an affront. Hundreds rallied to defend Sanchez.

Dornan's current effort to bring Latinos to his side with such mailers as the Virgin of Guadalupe brochure smacks of hypocrisy, say his foes.

"Maybe he thinks that's a clever way of gaining sympathy from a particular ethnic group, but I think it's patronizing," Rep. Esteban Edward Torres (D-Pico Rivera) said. "I think it's ludicrous of him to attempt this in that he has acknowledged [the Latino] threat when he tried to disqualify so many of them from voting."

Sanchez spokesman Lee Godown called Dornan's mailer "bad strategy."

"I don't think you convince people you're for family values when you denigrate a revered saint of the Catholic Church by printing her likeness on a mailing that has some pretty disgusting pictures on the inside," Godown said.

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