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A Tight Race With Loose Purse Strings

Democrats, Republicans are expected to spend a combined $8 million for the Orange County seat, one of the few that remains competitive.

September 17, 2006|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

The run for an Orange County state Senate seat is shaping up as the most competitive and expensive legislative race in California this year, with both sides girding for a vitriolic political battle.

The campaigns of Democratic Supervisor Lou Correa and Republican Assemblywoman Lynn Daucher could spend, according to some estimates, as much as $8 million combined to win the seat for the 34th District, which covers parts of Anaheim, Buena Park, Fullerton, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, Stanton and Westminster. Since 1998, it has been held by Democrat Joe Dunn, who is leaving office because of term limits.

In one of many states where the electoral map has been drawn to make most legislative races highly predictable, this is one of a handful of those remaining competitive. Because Democrats hold a voter registration advantage of less than two percentage points and an additional 18% of the voters call themselves independents, both parties have targeted the seat as a top priority.

"This will be a big-bucks campaign," said Allen Hoffenblum, publisher of the nonpartisan Target Book, which tracks legislative races.

"Millions will be spent on both sides, because there's nothing else to do."

Although the amount is less than the record $10 million spent for a Central Valley Senate seat in 2004, it will still probably rank as one of the state's most expensive elections.

In a region where broadcast television advertising is prohibitively expensive for local candidates, voters can expect a flood of political advertisements in their mailboxes this fall.

And both sides have already decided to go negative.

Still, the outcome will not change the ideological balance of the Senate, which will remain firmly controlled by Democrats. So the spoils for the victor in this race will primarily be bragging rights.

The seat is a "watershed" in terms of the Democratic Party in Orange County, said Art Torres, state party chairman. "It has much more visibility statewide because of what's been occurring there, with inroads by Democrats," he said.

"We want to make sure we keep that as a front."

Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine) said the seat is the top priority for Republicans as well. "We think we have a good chance of taking it back," he said. "We had it for a long time."

Despite the high stakes and looming attacks, the candidates are sticking to bland platitudes for now, regarding their qualifications and character.

"If you were to go to Sacramento and ask, 'What is Lynn Daucher known for?,' they would tell you, 'Education,' " Daucher recently said.

" 'She is the go-to Republican on education.' "

Correa, meanwhile, invoked a sports metaphor to describe his campaigning style.

"I'm putting on my football helmet and running between that guard and tackle and running for daylight," he said in an interview.

Though the area is historically Republican, Democrats began making gains there when Loretta Sanchez bested Robert K. Dornan for a House seat in 1996 and Dunn defeated incumbent Republican Rob Hurtt in 1998. Al Gore carried the district by 10 percentage points in the 2000 presidential race.

Since that time, Republicans, primarily through the moderate New Majority organization, have aggressively been signing up voters.

Though Democrats held a nearly nine-point registration advantage in the district as recently as 2002, it has since ping-ponged even to the point of a brief Republican advantage earlier this year.

Recent votes reflect the Republican inroads. The district approved recalling Gray Davis in 2003, and a majority voted for Arnold Schwarzenegger to succeed him. George W. Bush carried the district in the 2004 presidential election.

In such a turbulent atmosphere, both candidates not surprisingly are known as the moderate centrists of their parties -- at times to the consternation of the faithful.

During her Assembly career, Daucher on several occasions has voted for Democratic priorities, including a prescription drug bill this session backed by the speaker and opposed by virtually all Republicans. The proposal would essentially force pharmaceutical companies to offer discounts to the poor.

She also voted for a package of bills placing $38 billion in infrastructure bonds on the November ballot and has often voted to approve state budgets even as fellow Republicans held out.

Correa has been one of the most aggressive backers of tough-on-crime legislation that has largely been anathema to his Democratic colleagues.

He has also declined to support legislation dealing with progressive regulation and consumer protection issues that was a priority for Democrats.

Both sides plan to blanket the district with political mail, with Daucher's team saying she will send out more than 20 pieces of campaign literature.

The campaigns have already identified potential weaknesses in their opponents, which they plan to attack.

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