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Capps in Tough Fight to Keep Seat

Campaign experts say an upset in congressional race is possible as GOP's well-heeled challenger, Beth Rogers, pulls within striking distance.

October 27, 2002|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

In a year of redrawn political boundaries that favor incumbents, Rep. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) starts with a clear edge over Oxnard businesswoman Beth Rogers, her Republican opponent in the Nov. 5 election.

Registered Democrats hold a 12% advantage over Republicans in the narrow congressional district that stretches from the bluffs of San Luis Obispo to Oxnard's fertile plains.

Capps, 64, a two-term incumbent, has raised $1.34 million to win over 325,000 potential voters. She launched her campaign with a high-brow Hope Ranch fund-raiser starring the Democratic Party's cheerleader-in-chief, former President Clinton.

Yet, political strategists say an upset is not out of the question. And that is largely because Capps' competitor is smart -- and rich.

Beth Rogers, 56, who comes from a fourth-generation Ventura County farming family, has proved she can raise a lot of money too.

Rogers has more than matched Capps' fund-raising with $1.44 million, though about half is from her own bank account.

In campaign appearances, Rogers has impressed audiences with her command of issues. She speaks fluent Spanish, a benefit with the growing number of local Latino residents.

Forty-two percent of the 23rd Congressional District is Latino.

Her conservative stance on taxes and moderate social beliefs make her an attractive candidate for the old-line Republicans in Santa Maria's ranches and Santa Barbara's tony hillsides, strategists say.

"Lois is facing, without a doubt, the strongest Republican she has ever faced," said Allan Hoffenblum, a GOP strategist and publisher of the "California Target Book," which tracks candidates in state and federal races.

"It's one heck of a competitive race, because Rogers is actually spending the money. She's raised over $1 million and she's all over TV and radio," he said.

So far, the Democrats aren't too concerned.

Most of the party's money and attention in California are focused on the tight race for an open Modesto congressional seat being vacated by Democratic Rep. Gary Condit.

Kim Rubey, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington, D.C., said Capps has a strong moderate record that will bring victory next month.

"We think she's in good shape," Rubey said.

A school nurse for 30 years, Capps assumed office for the first time five years ago after her congressman husband died of a heart attack.

Rogers, a no-nonsense businesswoman who runs her family's sod farm near Camarillo, is mounting her first candidacy after years of working behind the scenes to elect moderate Republican women.

Both women have endured personal tragedies that shaped their lives.

Capps' husband, Walter, a popular professor of religious studies at UC Santa Barbara, died just a few months into his first term.

Capps was thrust into the position of making funeral plans at the same time she was deciding whether to run for his seat.

She won in a special election in March 1998. Two years later, her oldest daughter, Lisa, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, died of lung cancer at 35.

Those painful losses renewed her commitment to public service, Capps said.

"I see my job as helping people make things work," she said.

Rogers' first husband died from cancer, leaving her with two young children. That forced her to become "completely practical," Rogers said.

She jumped into the family's ranching business, remarried, earned a master's degree in business administration and took over Pacific Sod, which employs 200 people.

Doctoral studies in anthropology took her to Mexico, where she became fluent in Spanish, Rogers said.

She and her husband, Richard, raised as foster parents the son of one of their Salvadoran workers.

Both candidates tilt toward a moderate political philosophy focused on such social issues as improving education, controlling health care costs, preserving Social Security and protecting the environment. But they differ in the details.

Capps does not support public funding of private schools through vouchers and said she never will. Rogers says they may be necessary to help students stuck in failing public schools.

Capps obtained a one-year moratorium on new oil drilling off the Central Coast and seeks a permanent ban on the leases.

Rogers opposes drilling, too, but said the offshore leases should be bought out by the government.

As for forest drilling, Rogers said she prefers to explore alternative energy sources and that the federal government should pay for the research.

Capps opposes the Bush administration's review of the National Environmental Policy Act, the landmark 1969 legislation that paved the way for environmental scrutiny of federal projects; Rogers says the 33-year-old law has become unwieldy and "needs to be looked at."

In a recent debate, the candidates offered starkly different views on the Bush administration's call for a possible preemptive strike against Iraq to remove its leader, Saddam Hussein.

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