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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / CONGRESS

High Hopes Fade in Both Major Parties

Clinton confession dimmed Democrats' dreams of retaking House, while possible backlash against impeachment bid dampens expectations for GOP.

October 28, 1998|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — The candidacy of Republican Charles Ball, a devoted jogger literally running for Congress by sprinting through the streets of the East Bay, looked rather bleak just a couple of months ago.

He trotted up to one suburban home to introduce himself, and a dog bit him. He had to crack his retirement fund for $90,000 to take on Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher of Pleasanton, a millionaire. His campaign was dismissed by smug Democrats as "third-tier"--politicalspeak for "not a prayer."

But this election season is nothing if not murky, and all of a sudden the 36-year-old national security analyst has given the GOP a shot at knocking off an incumbent House Democrat in California.

The contributions that once averaged $300 a day now gush into his post office box at the rate of $15,000. This month his supporters paid $100 a plate to eat scrambled eggs with House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas). And Bob Dole called to ask if there was anything he could do to help.

"Charles Ball caught the Democrats asleep at the switch," said Todd Harris, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "They were so busy ignoring him that he was able to build an outstanding organization and establish himself as a credible candidate. If the Democrats hadn't been so arrogant so early on, they wouldn't be in the position they are today."

The tortoise versus hare show now playing in the affluent 10th Congressional District's suburbs east of Oakland is a national symbol of how Democratic hopes curdled. It was not so long ago that the minority party was musing about defying history and winning the 11 seats it needs to take back the House. Tauscher was snug in her freshman seat, and Democrats were free to target Republicans such as Rep. Brian Bilbray in San Diego, a moderate running against openly gay City Councilwoman Christine Kehoe in a centrist district with sporadic liberal pangs.

But thanks to the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, Democrats will be grateful to simply hold their ground in Congress. Victory will be measured not by whether the Brian Bilbrays of the nation lose, but by whether the Ellen Tauschers hang on.

Tauscher, 46, remains favored to win her second term. But, as GOP official Harris noted, the change in the dynamics of Tauscher's race and others has meant that Republicans "have been able to shift away from protecting incumbents and toward helping challengers. The Democrats have had the opposite scenario. Brian Bilbray is as good as sworn in."

Election Predicted to Be Close to a Wash

The White House scandal clearly soured the Democrats' hopes of retaking the House--though not nearly as dramatically as some feared. The GOP tidal wave envisioned after the president admitted in August to his affair may have crested.

Republican leaders who predicted then that their gains in House seats would number in the 20s or more, in keeping with historical off-year trends, now hope for a more modest six to 12. Indeed, a recent Times poll showed that the decision to pursue the impeachment inquiry could hurt Republicans more than Democrats in California.

But the scandal has dashed Democratic hopes in other ways. Party efforts to emphasize issues such as education and Social Security were subsumed for weeks by scandal coverage, and the fallout could still drive large numbers of angry conservatives to the polls.

The bottom line: For all the political do-si-do, experts now predict that the election will come out close to a wash.

Most incumbents among California's 52-member House delegation are expected to easily win reelection Tuesday. The economy is still good, employment is high, and the crime rate is down, all of which reflect well on those in office.

"The American people don't even want to fire the president, so why would they want to fire their own congressman?" asked Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican consultant in Los Angeles.

As a result, the election night suspense over congressional races in California promises to focus on three open seats. As of now, analysts look for each to change hands from the party that has held it. Assuming all incumbents win, that would give the GOP a net gain of one seat within the nation's largest delegation, which now consists of 29 Democrats and 23 Republicans.

In the South Bay, the 36th District seat was left open by Democrat Jane Harman's failed bid for governor this year. The district's makeup tilts toward Republicans, but Harman captured the seat in a 1992 upset fueled by her abortion rights message and personal wealth.

Now, with moderate Assemblyman Steven T. Kuykendall (R-Rancho Palos Verdes), who supports abortion rights, on the Republican ticket against Democrat Janice Hahn, one recent poll showed the race to be a virtual tie. But some pundits think voters will revert to type.

"Harman's was a borrowed seat, and the force of her personality and her ability to self-fund is how she held it," Hoffenblum said. "She had a strong Republicans-for-Harman base. Janice Hahn doesn't have that."

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