Democrat Cuts Through GOP 'Malaise' for Win

Discontent with Bush, governor is cited in low voter turnout for swing Assembly district race.

September 15, 2005|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

The Assembly district that runs along the coast from Venice to Torrance is considered one of the few swing districts in California, but the lone Democratic candidate in this week's special election easily swept past three Republican contenders.

The outcome appears to reflect voters' disillusionment with Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and perhaps even President Bush, political analysts said.

Torrance City Councilman Ted Lieu captured 60% of the vote in Tuesday's election -- three times the percentage earned by his closest competitor. By winning a majority, Lieu avoided a November runoff to replace late Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gordon, 47, who died in June while undergoing treatment for a brain tumor.

The fact that Democrats won without a runoff caught political analysts off guard. Only 17% of registered voters in the 53rd Assembly District went to the polls Tuesday, indicating that Republicans, who are usually more likely to turn out for a special election, stayed home, said Tony Quinn, an editor of the California Target Book election guide.

"Republicans are turned off," Quinn said. "There's a lack of any enthusiasm among Republicans for the governor's agenda and maybe even with what's going on with Washington. There was already unhappiness with Bush, and now we have [Hurricane] Katrina. There's a lot of malaise among Republican voters."

Although Lieu won handily, the district is not considered a safe seat for Democrats. Voter registration in the district is closely divided, at 41% Democrat and 35% Republican, with 20% declining to state party affiliation. In the 2003 gubernatorial recall election, 54% of voters in the district supported Schwarzenegger.

The state Democratic Party cleared the field of other candidates to focus on Lieu's campaign, while the Republicans put forward three contenders, including Mary Jo Ford, 43, a Manhattan Beach physician, who received strong support from state party leaders.

Republicans Paul Nowatka received 12% and Paul Whitehead, 2% of the vote. Peace and Freedom Party candidate James Smith also got 2%.

Ford's campaign stumbled after the Daily Breeze newspaper reported that despite declaring herself a lifelong Republican, she had previously registered as an American Independent and as a Democrat. The political novice later apologized for denying the allegations, but her credibility with party officials was tarnished.

On Wednesday, Ford said she did not think the incident played a role in the election's outcome.

"I just wish I had had more than six weeks to get my message of change in Sacramento to voters," she said.

Ford had said she would spend up to $500,000 of her own money on the campaign but ended up contributing roughly $200,000, according to campaign finance statements. She received no major contributions from the state Republican Party.

Lieu spent $300,000 on his campaign, with the largest contributions coming from employee unions and affiliated groups. The state Democratic Central Committee donated more than $20,000 in non-monetary contributions.

Lieu, 36, said he believed his campaign message -- focused on education, emergency preparedness and the environment -- resonated with most voters in the district. He said his main objective would be to push Schwarzenegger to return $3 billion earmarked for schools that was used to balance the state budget.

"I'm very humbled that voters put their faith and confidence in me," Lieu said. "We ran a bipartisan campaign that appealed to a broad cross-section of supporters."

Republican political analyst Allan Hoffenblum said that Republicans, smarting from Schwarzenegger's and Bush's low ratings in the polls, may have hurt themselves further by fielding a weak candidate like Ford.

"The Republicans ended up with a candidate who was a political unknown and not very truthful," he said. "There was not a lot there to motivate Republicans. Let's face it, I think there was more to motivate the Democratic Party activists to go to the polls."

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