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Democrats Poised to Widen Advantage

With backing from Gov. Davis and big business, the party hopes to pick up seats. The GOP, meanwhile, is on the defensive.


SACRAMENTO — Tony Strickland talks of becoming the next leader of the Republican minority in the California Assembly. But before he can mount a run in the winter, the Thousand Oaks lawmaker has to win reelection.

Strickland barely beat his Democratic opponent, teacher Roz McGrath, two years ago to represent the heart of Ventura County. Now McGrath is back--and is expected to receive a $1-million dowry from Sacramento's powerful Democratic leaders.

"They're going to put enormous amounts of money in all their races," Strickland said last week. "I have to worry about raising money."

Already in firm control of the Legislature, Democrats are mounting an aggressive, well-funded assault this fall to wrest even more seats from Republicans. The GOP, by contrast, is assuming a defensive crouch, hoping to hang on to what few seats it holds.

"We're very opportunistic," crowed Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, who is running the lower house races. "You have to think of us as the great white shark."

With the economy continuing to chug along, George W. Bush trailing Al Gore badly in California and polls showing strong public approval of Gov. Gray Davis and the Democrat-run Legislature, Republicans' hopes for a turnaround year in the Capitol have dimmed.

Democrats outnumber Republicans 46 to 32 in the Assembly and 25 to 15 in the Senate. All 80 Assembly seats are in play, along with half the Senate's 40 seats.

Before the Nov. 7 elections are over, GOP leaders predict, Democrats could outspend Republicans 5 to 1 in Legislative contests. With roughly $18 million in their personal and leadership accounts, Democrats already enjoy an edge of more than 4 to 1.

For the first time in 16 years, the GOP is without a Republican governor to help them raise money. Davis, meanwhile, is already lending Democrats a strong hand in fund-raising efforts and is sharing some of his record-shattering $21-million campaign coffers with needy candidates in close races.

Making matters worse for the GOP, Republicans' traditional source of campaign cash, big business, is increasingly shifting its contributions to Democrats, who continue to benefit from their traditional benefactors: lawyers and labor unions. That emerging trend, more than any other, worries California Republicans.

"Our fund-raising is going very well, but frankly, when the business community gives half its money to Democrats, there is just no way we can compete," said Senate Republican leader Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga).

Brulte pointed to contributions from the California Building Industry Assn., which has given $336,000 to Democrats and $147,000 to Republicans, and the insurance industry, which has given Democrats $1.3 million and $1.1 million to the GOP.

Some in Sacramento attribute the business shift to the Democrats' increasingly moderate tilt, particularly in the Assembly, where Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) and other members of the influential Democratic Business Caucus have snuffed out nearly all legislation opposed by corporate interests. Others say it is simpler: With little hope for a GOP conquest of either house, business is laying its gifts at the feet of the party certain to be in power.

"No matter what happens, the majority is out of reach for them in either house," said Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco). "Why would you give money to the Republicans? So they can win 17 seats instead of 15? What is that going to accomplish?"

Money is ever more crucial in the battle for control of the California Legislature.

Because of the revolving door in the Legislature caused by term limits, experts say even established incumbents are relatively unknown, making them especially vulnerable to expensive attack ads and campaign mail. Republicans worry that they may lack the resources to respond.

"I anticipate at the end of the day, the Democrats and their machine will spend $20 million to $25 million on the Assembly alone, while we will be lucky to spend $5 million to $7 million," said Assembly Minority Leader Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach), who is leaving the lower house because of term limits.

Democrats have become increasingly suspicious of the defeatist rhetoric coming from California's Republican leaders. Burton refers to their lamentations as "crocodile tears" and says they are merely lowering expectations. He and Hertzberg suspect Republicans will raise their share of money before the elections are over.

"I am not persuaded that we have all this money," Hertzberg said. "Nationally, they have a lot of money, and that can impact our races. . . . The one thing I have learned is not to get cocky."

The political skirmish that takes place every two years for control of the Legislature is often compared to a chess match, and as in that thinker's game, practitioners say every move is as much art as science, based more on instincts than information.

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