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Orange County

O.C. Right Stands Tall in the Middle

County Republicans deliver the vote, then bask in the victory by Schwarzenegger. Even the conservative Lincoln Club toasts his triumph.

October 09, 2003|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Voters in a county well-known for the most conservative politics in California coalesced Tuesday behind a man who offered them hope of a new Republican foothold in Sacramento.

Orange County Republicans said the vote will help them reclaim their importance in a state where the political leadership largely dismissed them as being politically out of touch.

There was much for local Republicans to celebrate in Tuesday's recall of Gov. Gray Davis and the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For them, the recall was a no-brainer.

But support for Schwarzenegger had been a leap of faith for Republicans who were far more conservative than the film star/politician but eager to reclaim a stake in Democrat-controlled Sacramento.

Nearly three-quarters of Orange County voters backed the recall of Davis, and 6 in 10 chose Schwarzenegger to replace him.

Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), who was hailed by conservatives as the most prepared and principled of the candidates, received 15%, two percentage points behind Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat.

The numbers for the recall and for Schwarzenegger harked back to Orange County's traditional ability to deliver solid GOP vote majorities that would counterbalance Democratic majorities elsewhere in the state. The county hasn't been able to do that for nearly a decade.

At a victory party Tuesday at the Hilton Hotel in Costa Mesa, members of the conservative Lincoln Club lighted cigars and cheered as Schwarzenegger delivered victory pledges to represent everybody and "treat our counterparts [in the Davis administration] with the utmost respect."

It was a jubilant but rare drift to the political center by a group that generally leans right.

"The concern among conservatives was that Arnold didn't need conservatives, that he could run as a quasi-independent," said Lincoln Club president Tracy Price, who spent election night with the Schwarzenegger camp at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles.

"Many of us didn't agree with that. Not only did we become relevant, but we became very important."

The venerable fund-raising club played a pivotal role leading to Tuesday's election.

In May, with the recall effort struggling for legitimacy, the Lincoln Club donated $100,000 and pledged $150,000 more from members. The money came two weeks after Rep. Darrell Issa, the millionaire Republican from Vista, resuscitated the recall by pledging $200,000 with a promise of more.

"Issa now had renewed vigor," Lincoln Club director Buck Johns said about a key meeting at his Newport Beach office this spring to jump-start the recall. "That's when Democrats and independents started to show up -- because they saw it was real."

In September, as Schwarzenegger's campaign momentum stalled, the conservative club issued a surprise endorsement for the actor-turned-candidate and urged McClintock to drop out of the race.

When McClintock refused, Price issued a terse reminder to the candidate that he'd promised not to be a spoiler and risk handing the election to Bustamante.

"Look, this was not a far-right message," Johns said. "Our message was good government."

A month earlier, the New Majority, an organization of 105 moderate Republican business owners based in Orange County, had become the first organized group to back Schwarzenegger.

Giddy celebrants scurried from Schwarzenegger's campaign gala at the Century Plaza to the adjacent St. Regis Hotel, where Orange County billionaire developer Donald Bren, a Schwarzenegger supporter and friend for 20 years, held an invitation-only Party on the top floor of the resort.

Schwarzenegger supporters praised the election as a rare synergy of right, left and center that tapped into universal discontent with politics as usual.

The one Republican gathering where "Ar-nold" chants couldn't be heard was in the main ballroom of the Hilton Costa Mesa, where the county Republican party held its victory party for the recall.

In a multi-page speech to the crowd an hour after the race was declared over, county GOP chairman Tom Fuentes, who reportedly favored McClintock, didn't mention Schwarzenegger's name once.

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