Ever since her headline-grabbing upset of conservative Republican icon Rep. Robert K. Dornan back in 1996, Rep. Loretta Sanchez has won reelection in her working-class district by wide margins. Now, however, Republicans believe they stand a fighting chance of unseating Orange County's only Democratic member of the House.
Armed with years of local political experience, strong ties with the area's ascendant Vietnamese American community and the backing of Republicans in Washington and around the nation, Republican state Assemblyman Van Tran is giving Sanchez her first serious challenge in more than a decade.
"That seat has been on the radar screen for Republicans for a long time, but [until now] they've not really had a substantive candidate," said Chip Hanlon, a founder of Red County, a conservative blog about Orange County politics. Republican leaders and campaign donors now "believe this is a winnable fight," Hanlon said.
But Sanchez, who said she has spent every weekend in the district during her 14-year tenure, has long been known for her strong fundraising, attention to district concerns and energetic campaigning. Democratic leaders say she'll prevail on Nov. 2.
"It's important to note she has taken it seriously from Day 1," said Andy Stone, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
On Friday, the Sanchez campaign announced that former President Bill Clinton will appear at a rally for her in downtown Santa Ana on Oct. 15.
Arguing that Sanchez is a better fit for the working-class district because her record better serves their interests, Stone said she is "working diligently to point out Van Tran's record on a whole range of issues that affect people's lives."
The 47th Congressional District is home to Disneyland and substantial numbers of immigrants. It encompasses most of Santa Ana and parts of Garden Grove (home to both candidates), Anaheim and Fullerton.
The California Target Book, which tracks legislative and congressional races in the state, estimated that 44% of the district's registered voters are Latino and 18% are Asian, mostly Vietnamese American. Democrats hold a 47% to 31% registration edge over Republicans, with nearly 19% of voters declining to state a party preference, according to statistics released last month by the California secretary of state.
The spirited contest is one of only a handful of competitive House races in California this fall, and it features the familiar themes of Republicans criticizing the Obama administration's track record on the economy, healthcare, jobs and the like, and Democrats attacking the GOP for policies that favor the wealthy and spending cuts that hurt middle- and working-class families.
Republicans took heart when Washington-based political handicapper Charles Cook recently changed his characterization of the race from "likely Democratic" to "leans Democratic," and an outside poll about a month ago showed Tran nearly even with Sanchez. But Sanchez said her campaign's polling showed her "pulling away" from Tran after she began airing ads on cable TV in early September.
The contest also highlights the political dichotomy of the district's two big ethnic groups, Latinos and Vietnamese Americans. Sanchez found herself on the defensive recently when the Tran campaign jumped on remarks she made in a Spanish-language television interview that "the Vietnamese" and Republicans were trying to take "this seat from us." She also called Tran "very anti-immigrant and very anti-Hispanic"; he called her statements "offensive" and "divisive" and sought an apology.
Sanchez said she had been responding to the interviewer's question about Tran and those in the Vietnamese community who were supporting him, and was not referring to Vietnamese voters as a whole. She predicted she will get a larger share of their votes than Tran because of "all my hard work with the community."
The race was contentious well before the flap over Sanchez's remarks. Tran had accused Sanchez of ducking debates with him, citing a busy schedule despite making time for lunch with Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, a longtime supporter and campaign contributor. Sanchez attacked Tran as a "greedy Sacramento politician" for accepting government-paid, tax-free living expenses.
Fred Smoller, who directs the master's of public administration program at Brandman University in Irvine, said both candidates have good campaign organizations and strong fundraising, though Sanchez so far has outpaced Tran, $1.3 million to $729,000 as of June 30, the latest period for which figures were available.
"They both have very compelling life stories, the up-from-nowhere, American dream-type stories" that voters in the district can identify with, Smoller said.
Tran was born in South Vietnam and escaped with his parents just before the fall of Saigon in 1975. He said he was 10 years old when he arrived in the U.S., "with little more than the clothes on my back and an English vocabulary of two words."