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CAMPAIGN 2000 | CONGRESS

State a Key Battleground in Fight to Gain Seats

Politics: Democrats, who show strength in primary, need six additional members nationwide to wrest House control from GOP.

March 09, 2000|JANET HOOK and JEAN MERL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

While the battles over the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations wind down, the fight for control of the House of Representatives is just beginning and Tuesday's congressional primaries made it clear that California will be one of the struggle's major battlegrounds.

Democratic Party officials were buoyed that their candidates won the most overall votes in two key districts--the 27th, a seat held by Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Glendale), and the 15th, which is being vacated by Rep. Tom Campbell (R-San Jose), who is the GOP's nominee for Senate.

"These are good signs for the Democrats," said Stuart Rothenberg, a Washington-based independent political analyst who follows congressional elections. "The House is in such a balance that if the Democrats picked up a couple extra seats in California, it could tilt the chamber to them."

In California, one of three states that kicked off the congressional primary season Tuesday, the ballot's so-called beauty contest was a first test of how candidates might fare in the fall general election. If the results--which followed new rules in which voters could choose among all candidates on the ballot regardless of party affiliation--were repeated in November, Democrats would gain two seats in the state's 52-member delegation.

Nationwide, Democrats have to gain six seats in order to win a majority in the House, which has 222 Republicans, 211 Democrats, one independent who usually votes with the GOP and another that usually sides with the Democrats.

California already is shaping up as a microcosm of important national political trends in the congressional campaign:

* Most incumbents, in the state and nationwide, face little or no opposition and are coasting to reelection. Even fewer legislators have to worry about serious primary challenges. On Tuesday, Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park) was the exception: He lost his primary fight to state Sen. Hilda Solis (D-La Puente).

Solis' rout of the nine-termer Martinez--63% to 28%--marked her as the latest example of a new, energetic generation of Latino leaders climbing California's political ladder.

But in Ohio, which also held a congressional primary Tuesday, voters provided fresh evidence of how hard it is to unseat an incumbent this year--Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio) beat back a challenge even though he is facing grand jury investigation on corruption charges.

* The handful of seats in contention--probably no more than two dozen nationwide--are being fiercely contested and followed closely by national political leaders. Democratic leaders--including President Clinton and Gov. Gray Davis--worked hard to recruit strong candidates in California. Their pick for Campbell's open seat, Democratic state Sen. Mike Honda, not only easily won the Democratic nomination but outpolled the Republican choice, Assemblyman Jim Cunneen.

But in Long Beach, the party-annointed candidate did not win. Democratic congressional leaders recruited Erin Gruwell, a teacher, to challenge GOP Rep. Steve Horn, but she lost the primary to Gerrie Schipske, an attorney and political activist.

Horn, who barely campaigned, emerged from Tuesday's primary with 50% of the vote in a working-class, increasingly minority district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 51% to 32%. But a strategist for Schipske, who won a four-way Democratic primary with 15% of the overall vote, said he expects party leaders to rally behind his candidate now.

* Huge amounts of money are being raised and spent in contested races. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reports that 10 of its challengers raised $400,000 or more in 1999, including two in California--state Sen. Adam Schiff, who is challenging Rogan, and Susan Davis, an assemblywoman who is running against Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-San Diego). Even Clinton is raising money for House candidates; he attended a fund-raiser for former Rep. Jane Harman, who is challenging Rep. Steve Kuykendall (R-Rancho Palos Verdes), that brought in $400,000--more than any other Democratic challenger has ever raised in a single event.

The House battle has been buffeted by broader political winds that will surely continue to shift between now and November, so the results of the state primary have to be viewed with some caution.

"Eight months is an eternity in this business," said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "This is a snapshot of where the races are today."

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