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Democrats Strengthen Dominance in House Delegation

If final absentee ballots don't change results, the party captures the top five targeted congressional contests in California. Outcome is another ebb for Republican power in state.


A strong showing for the Gore-Lieberman ticket and a boost from organized labor's ground troops helped fuel Democrats' apparent sweep of all five of California's most fiercely contested House of Representatives races, analysts said Wednesday.

Unless final absentee ballots change things, Democrats will be widening their three-seat margin on the state's House delegation, outnumbering Republicans 33 to 19. Their victories over three Southern California Republican incumbents--and their near-defeat of four-term Rep. Steve Horn of Long Beach in a lower-profile race--were viewed as yet another sign of the GOP's low fortunes in the nation's most populous state.

Particularly telling was the victory by former Rep. Jane Harman over Rep. Steven T. Kuykendall, who was clinging to hope that remaining absentee ballots would reverse his 48.4%-46.7% loss in the South Bay's 36th District. Also striking, experts said, was Assemblywoman Susan A. Davis' win over Rep Brian P. Bilbray in coastal San Diego County's 49th District.

"Republicans have shown they can't carry these critical swing coastal seats. . . . They are in a shambles. They are just not competitive in California," said Allan Hoffenblum, a veteran GOP consultant.

He and other political observers attributed Rep. James E. Rogan's defeat by state Sen. Adam Schiff to shifting demographics in the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena area's 27th District, not to Rogan's leading role in President Clinton's impeachment trial last year.

Impeachment brought the contest national media attention and enough contributions from around the country to shatter the spending record for a House race. But the once-conservative Republican district has increasingly voted Democratic, and Rogan was the only Republican state or federal legislator left in the area.

The three coastal area races--in the South Bay, Long Beach and San Diego--turned into cliffhangers.

Kuykendall, a former Rancho Palos Verdes city councilman and state assemblyman who emphasized his deep roots in the district, in early returns narrowly led Harman, who held the seat for six years before giving it up to run for governor in 1998.

But in a turnaround by early Wednesday, Kuykendall trailed Harman by about 3,800 votes. He said an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 still-uncounted absentee ballots could turn the tide.

Harman, however, said a Kuykendall win at this point would be nearly impossible and expected final results by Friday.

Making a victory speech surrounded by her family outside her Torrance headquarters Wednesday, Harman seemed eager to get back to Washington. She began her career there as an aide to then-Sen. John Tunney and worked in the Carter administration. On Wednesday, former President Jimmy Carter sent her a congratulatory fax.

She predicted that she and other centrist "New Democrats" will work effectively in a House in which Republicans hold a razor-thin majority.

"We will be the swing votes," Harman said.

She campaigned on key national issues--paying down the national debt, adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, improving education and reforming health care.

Unlike in her first campaign for Congress and her race in the gubernatorial primary, Harman did not dip into her considerable family wealth to win back the congressional seat.

She said Kuykendall's attacks on her attendance record and his questioning her ties and commitment to the district backfired. In particular, Harman cited a Kuykendall television commercial that featured a woman idly tapping her French-manicured, diamond-sporting fingers against a table while a man's voice talked about her "boredom" and missed votes.

"If there's a gender gap, and I believe there is one, we may find that it's not just because I'm pro-choice and have been a leader on this issue, but because women were offended by that commercial," Harman said.

In San Diego County, where Davis defeated three-term incumbent Bilbray 50% to 46%, bitterness over the high-spending race was still fresh Wednesday.

Bilbray complained that labor unions had spent millions of dollars vilifying him as a threat to Medicare and as uncaring about public education.

"This race is a poster-child for why we need campaign spending limits," Bilbray said. "If there had been limits, there wouldn't even have been a campaign."

In explaining her win, Davis said voters "want a Congress that cares about them and their families and not just about the wealthy and special interest."

In Long Beach's 38th District, Democratic nurse practitioner and attorney Gerrie Schipske was not about to concede defeat Wednesday to Horn, the former president of Cal State Long Beach. Horn's strong local ties and centrist politics won him the seat in 1992 and produced subsequent reelections despite a growing Democratic registration advantage that now stands at 52% to 30%.

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