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California Elections

O.C. Race for State Senate Seat Too Close to Call

A GOP assemblyman narrowly leads a GOP councilwoman. A June runoff awaits winner.

April 13, 2006|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Huntington Beach Assemblyman Tom Harman was clinging to a 289-vote lead over a fellow Republican on Wednesday in the race for an Orange County state Senate seat.

Harman had 38.8% of the vote in unofficial results posted at 5 p.m. Dana Point Councilwoman Diane Harkey had 38.5%. Democrat Larry Caballero, the third candidate on the ballot, drew 22.7%.

On Wednesday, campaign officials for the two Republicans remained wary.

"We're going to wait until every single ballot is counted" before declaring victory, Harman campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Jacobs said.

"This is unbelievable," said Harkey campaign manager Scott Hart.

"I can't believe how close this is. There's no doubt there's been momentum for Diane, but I don't know whether we have enough."

Hart said the campaign would ask for an official recount if the margin stayed as slim or narrowed with about 650 provisional ballots expected to be counted Friday.

Provisional ballots are those cast by voters unsure whether they were registered or had voted absentee.

The top Republican vote-getter will face Caballero on June 6, a run-off political observers see as a formality. Republicans outnumber Democrats 2 to 1 in the coastal district, which stretches from Seal Beach to Dana Point.

Tensions rose at the county registrar of voters office Wednesday after attorneys for both sides arrived to observe the final count and challenge ballots.

Harman managed to eke out his lead, supporters said, after assembling a coalition of Republicans, Democrats and other voters who responded to his message of opposing tax increases while supporting environmental protection.

Wednesday's count stunned the county's Republican establishment, which had backed Harkey en masse with endorsements and money.

The backing was driven by enmity toward Harman, who angered conservatives in 1998 when he won his seat in the state's only open primary, where voters of all parties could choose among every candidate.

The party's favored candidate, Jim Righeimer, unsuccessfully challenged Harman's primary win, saying it was illegitimate because it came courtesy of Democratic votes.

Tuesday's election was conducted under the same rules, with voters allowed to choose among any of the three candidates.

Harman's apparent win doesn't necessarily mean that the county's conservatives have lost their grip on primary elections, said UC Irvine political science professor Mark Petracca. Harkey was backed by nearly every state and federal lawmaker in Orange County, but had an uphill climb against Harman's incumbency and familiarity with voters.

"One case does not a trend make," said Petracca, a Democrat who counts Harkey as a friend and former student. "What can be said is that while this may not be the end of Republican conservative establishment dominance in Orange County, to paraphrase Churchill, it may be the beginning of the end."

The special election was called after John Campbell was elected to the House of Representatives in December to fill a seat vacated by Christopher Cox, now chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

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