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CAMPAIGN 2000

Open Vote Gives GOP Centrists an Edge

Two winning O.C. Republican moderates credit crossover support from independents and Democrats.

March 09, 2000|MEG JAMES and PETER M. WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

California's open primary this week unlatched the door in Orange County for moderate Republicans who previously had been shut out by party leaders and conservative voters in districts dominated by the GOP.

In two state Assembly races, voters Tuesday picked moderate Republicans, ditching more conservative candidates backed by party leaders.

Brea Councilwoman Lynn Daucher defeated Bruce Matthias in the scramble for the Assembly District 72 seat in North County despite a long list of endorsements collected by Matthias. And in Assembly District 67, Huntington Beach Councilman Tom Harman, who campaigned on a pro-environment and pro-teacher platform, buried conservative Jim Righeimer, who unsuccessfully tried to ride a wave of anti-tax sentiment.

The two Assembly contests, which were open because of term limits, were the only two in which well-financed moderates and conservative Republicans clashed.

Despite a shift to the center in these local races, Orange County voters embraced the Republican party favorite, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, for president, snubbing Arizona Sen. John McCain and his appeal to crossover voters. In Orange County, Bush won 38% of the votes cast--10 percentage points more than his statewide total.

Orange County voters also held fast to established conservative principles, voting tough on juvenile crime and trouncing a measure to make it easier to raise property taxes for schools. And they recoiled at the prospect of gay marriages to a greater degree than voters statewide.

Noteworthy, though, was the relatively small difference between Orange County and statewide support for those three signature conservative issues. For example, more than 69% of Orange County voters favored the gay marriage ban, while statewide the measure drew 61% support. That's a far cry from previous elections, in which the difference between county and state support sometimes topped 20% or more.

"We are not supplying the huge margins of the past, and that is true for candidates too," said Dan Wooldridge, a political consultant. "While Orange County is still a conservative county, the voters are becoming more moderate and less on the conservative cutting edge."

But the signature event for centrist voters was the change in the primary system, passed by an initiative in 1996. On Wednesday, Orange County Republicans and consultants attributed Daucher and Harman's victories to the open primary, which welcomed crossover Democrats and independents.

"The open primary is politically popular because some voters feel empowered," said state Sen. John Lewis (R-Orange), who supported Matthias in the District 72 race. "But when you sit back and look at what happens, [the open primary] is just an invitation for political mischief" by non-Republicans.

Tuesday's election was a "major coup," said political consultant Eileen Padberg, a well-known Republican centrist.

"For a long, long time, elections in Orange County have been closed to moderates, minorities and women," Padberg said. "If you weren't pre-selected by a little group of conservative Republicans, you didn't have a chance. And this election proves those days are over."

Harman, who identifies himself as both a moderate and a conservative in the race to succeed Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach), said he purposely targeted crossovers in the Republican-dominated district.

"Things are changing here," Harman said. "I think voters want to swing to the more moderate candidates. I appealed to the moderate mainstream Republicans who are tired of the same old right-wing conservative Republican machine managed by [Rep. Dana] Rohrabacher and Baugh, saying here is your candidate, now go to the polls and elect him."

Also at play in the coastal 67th District race, which encompasses Bolsa Chica and several other beach communities, was Harman's visibility as a councilman, his outspoken support for environmental issues, and his backing of choice in abortion and support for gun control.

Daucher said her pro-choice position might have cost her some votes.

"But voters are concerned about a lot of issues," Daucher said. "That is a very personal issue and I respect everyone's views. But there are other things that we all care about too. There is so much that we can all agree on."

Righeimer and Matthias agreed that the open primary has changed elections, creating an opportunity that can be exploited by moderates, particularly if those candidates have plenty of campaign cash to woo crossover voters.

Harman, who ran against Righeimer, received nearly $300,000 from unions around the state, including those representing prison guards, teachers, firefighters and health care workers. The money went to a series of mailers that landed in the last week of the campaign.

Righeimer--Baugh's long-time political pal and campaign chairman for Rohrabacher--had been one of the authors of the unsuccessful 1998 Proposition 226, which sought to control the spending of workers' dues on politics.

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