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CAMPAIGN 2000

Prop. 22, Bush-McCain Matchup Bring County Voters Out in Force

Trends: More than half the registered voters participate in Tuesday's primary, the highest turnout since 1980. The majority continue to embrace conservative causes.

March 09, 2000|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Motivated by a presidential maverick and a divisive moral issue, Ventura County voters turned out in extraordinary numbers to reaffirm their independence and conservatism and to show again that they are tight with their money and tough on crime.

This county's voters, more than the rest of California, on Tuesday backed Republicans, embraced a ban on gay marriages, imposed tough sanctions on violent juveniles and rejected a measure to make it easier to increase property taxes to build new schools.

And as they did for Ross Perot in 1992, county voters embraced the candidacy of an anti-establishment rebel, John McCain. While all Californians gave McCain 23% of the vote, 27% of Ventura County voters backed him.

"It is the year of the independent," said Steve Frank of Simi Valley, a conservative Republican campaign analyst. "McCain brought out hard-core conservative Republicans and independents who would not have voted otherwise. He created the turnout we saw yesterday."

Frank said Proposition 22, which requires the state to only recognize marriages between men and women, also pulled many voters who would have stayed home had they not been urged by their churches to support the measure.

The local result was a 47% turnout by Republicans and 39% by Democrats, a much greater edge than Republicans have in registration. Those numbers will change as 17,800 late absentee and 3,200 damaged ballots are counted. The final 54% turnout will be the highest since 1980, and far higher than projected by county officials.

"The fact is we missed the boat by 10 points," elections chief Bruce Bradley said. "I have no ability to gauge what's going on in churches. I'm a numbers cruncher. I turn on CNN for [analysis]."

So what does this conservative, Republican-leaning flood of voters mean for the Nov. 7 general election, if anything?

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Frank said it bodes well for independent candidates like Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Northridge), a longtime Republican maverick who trounced moderate county Supervisor Judy Mikels in the 19th Senate Republican primary. He faces Simi Valley lawyer Daniel Gonzalez, a Democrat, in the fall.

"The Mikels-McClintock race could be the best example in the state of this anti-establishment trend," he said, noting that 15% of county voters are not aligned with a political party. "Just about every local official endorsed Mikels, but the voters back McClintock, who is independent even of his own party."

Several local Democrats said the primary results are an aberration, and may even include a silver lining for the fall.

"You had a couple of elements--McCain and Prop. 22--that won't be here in the fall," said Hank Lacayo, chairman of the county Democratic Central Committee. "Take those wild cards out and you've got a different scenario on Nov. 7. I think county voters are going to come to their senses."

Democrats watched with interest, Lacayo said, as Mikels and McClintock shredded each other in an attempt to replace retiring Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley).

They noted a similar moderate-conservative fight in the 38th Assembly race, where San Fernando Valley physician Keith Richman defeated Simi Valley schools trustee Norm Walker, who was backed with big donations by the same conservative forces that support McClintock and Assemblyman Tony Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks).

The county Republican Central Committee also stood divided after Tuesday's vote. A slate backed by Strickland, including his mother, took 11 of 22 seats. The current committee majority, moderates led by farmer Paul Leavens and insurance agent Bob Larkin, took the other 11.

"We didn't have any bitter primaries," Lacayo said. "I don't see that vitriol among Democrats."

Leavens and Larkin said the split, fundamentally over abortion, has them worried. They fear the dispute could undercut party efforts needed in several tough races countywide.

"We're really going to have to try to work together, or we're going to have a real nightmare," said Leavens, the county chairman. "We're going to have to turn the other cheek. That's the only way we're going to get Tony reelected."

Assembly leaders from both major parties have targeted Strickland's 37th District race for extra attention, because the first-term incumbent barely beat Democrat teacher Roz McGrath in 1998, and now she's back for a second try.

After easing past Port Hueneme Councilman Jon Sharkey in a friendly primary, and receiving Sharkey's endorsement Wednesday, McGrath can mount a campaign with pledges of $500,000 to $1 million from party leaders. So when her year as a kindergarten teacher ends in June, she will become a full-time candidate until the election.

She's not worried that Strickland pulled 56% of the vote in Tuesday's open primary, she said, because she's sure Democrats will turn up when they're needed in the fall presidential election.

"We've got our work cut out for us," she said. "But I feel real good about our campaign. I feel I'm within range of winning this race."

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