Features

Who will rule the House?

National | With reporters emphasizing the presidential horserace, battles within key congressional districts are underreported. First in a series that will continue to November

Issue: "Campaign 2000," July 29, 2000

in Los Angeles - Republicans may enjoy a group hug in the City of Brotherly Love, but they're bedeviled by what's happening in and around the City of Angels. The upcoming Democratic convention doesn't particularly bother them-even in earth tones, Al Gore is unlikely to charm many voters with his nationally televised acceptance speech. No, the concern is that Southern California, depended on by GOP presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan, may be heading into the Democratic column. Republican concerns erupted in 1994, when Democrat Loretta Sanchez upended Rep. Bob Dornan, one of the most conservative members of the House of Representatives. This year, at least three other Democrats in the region are well positioned to duplicate that feat. Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, ranks only 13 Republican seats nationwide as toss-ups, but three of the 13 are Southern Californian. California Democrats, understandably, are gloating. "Californians don't like Republican Party politics," said Bob Mulholland, a campaign strategist for the California Democratic Party. "Ask Dan Lundgren; Gray Davis beat him by 20 points [in the 1998 gubernatorial race]. Ask our two United States senators." Or ask Jim Rogan, Steve Kuykendall, and Brian Bilbray, three Republican incumbents who are battling to survive. Mr. Rogan doesn't particularly look like an endangered species. He's only 43 years old, with a slim build and preppy good looks that make him appear even younger. Still, a starched white shirt and politician's smile could not hide the bags under his eyes last month as he pulled up to Trinity Christian School in the Los Angeles working-class suburb of Tujunga. Ninety or so junior high students squirmed in upholstered chairs as their teacher introduced them to the political celebrity. Mr. Rogan gave a short, low-key speech about politics and voting, and then opened the floor for questions. A hand on the front row shot up: "What was the impeachment like?" "It was tough, both personally and politically," Mr. Rogan replied, his smile fading. "I had a job to do, and I did my job." That's all he wants to say about the crisis that consumed so much of his political life last year. Yet it's a topic he's asked about constantly, and not just by schoolchildren. The media and the Democrats love to bring up his role as one of the House managers during President Clinton's impeachment trial, a moment of political history that remains highly unpopular in L.A.'s northwestern suburbs. His opponents use the episode to argue that Mr. Rogan is a moralist and an ideologue who cares more about abstract principles than about the day-to-day needs of the people in his district. It doesn't help, in that regard, that Mr. Rogan is an outspoken Christian. He talks easily about how much he appreciates the "weird" girl in his high school who was always praying for him, and about the difference that Christ made in his life when he was converted in his late 20s. When two students volunteered to pray for him at the end of his speaking session, Mr. Rogan didn't even hesitate. He extended a hand to each of the children and bowed his head, murmuring an occasional "Amen" as they asked God's blessing on him. Critics say his beliefs caused Mr. Rogan to prosecute aggressively a president who had violated his moral sensibilities. The congressman insists he was merely doing his job under the Constitution and harbors no ill will toward Mr. Clinton. Whatever the motivation, impeachment continues to be a major issue in this race, even though it has long since faded in other congressional districts. Both Mr. Rogan and his opponent, state Sen. Adam Schiff, have cranked up national fundraising machines, attracting donations from Clinton-bashers and Clinton-backers across the country. Those donations allowed Mr. Rogan to spend some $2.8 million leading up to California's March 7 primary-even though he faced no opposition for the Republican nomination. Mr. Schiff, by contrast, spent just $50,000. The primary was considered a key test, since Californians could vote for any candidate-regardless of party affiliation-much like a general election. Despite the huge difference in spending, Mr. Schiff beat Mr. Rogan by 2 percentage points. The loss sent a shudder down the backs of Republicans in Washington, but Mr. Rogan insists he's still going to win the November general election. He's never had an easy election, after all-he won with less than 51 percent of the vote last time around-but it only takes one extra vote to be the one in Washington. Besides, he's beat Mr. Schiff twice before in elections for a state assembly seat that largely matches the map of the congressional district. Mr. Rogan may have the history, but the demographics are challenging. Republicans need to do a much better job of appealing to Latinos (often socially conservative) and people of Asian background (often deeply supportive of free enterprise). Nearly two of five Rogan constituents are now ethnically Latino or Asian. Mr. Rogan has already raised an unprecedented $4 million, ensuring that this will be the most expensive House race in history-but it will also be a race in which the reaction of the two minorities to "the impeachment" will be crucial. Mr. Schiff raised only about $2 million through the last reporting period but expects a big boost from the national party as the election heads into the stretch. "Congressman Rogan is the most vulnerable Republican incumbent, and he's already lost to Schiff this election cycle," Ted Osthelder, Mr. Schiff's campaign manager, pointed out. "They're going to make sure we stay competitive." Nearby, in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, Jane Harman doesn't need to worry about staying competitive financially. After six years in Congress, she gave up her seat in 1998 in an unsuccessful bid for governor. Two years as a private citizen were plenty: She wants to go back to Washington. Thanks to a wealthy family and fundraising contacts made during her previous stint in Congress, she is one of just a handful of challengers nationwide who raised more cash than the incumbent. With just two years of service under his belt, Steve Kuykendall barely qualifies as an incumbent. He's a moderate Republican who's known for being soft on everything from abortion to guns. That may play well in much of this centrist district, but it angers the conservative activists who should make up his political base. They ran their own candidate, Robert T. Pegram, in the primary, forcing Mr. Kuykendall to spend precious time and money just to clinch the nomination. By the time the dust had settled, Mr. Kuykendall did win the Republican nod in the open primary, as expected. But the big news was his narrow margin of victory over Ms. Harman: just 1 percentage point. The Democrats figure that by November they can easily make that up in the sprawling, moderate-income neighborhoods surrounding Los Angeles harbor and LAX airport. Mr. Kuykendall, meanwhile, needs to shore up his support among conservatives-a tricky proposition, since he can't afford to scare off the country-club Republicans in wealthy coastal towns like Newport Beach. The Democrats, not surprisingly, are vowing to throw all their resources into bringing one of their own back to Washington. President Clinton has already attended a Harman fundraiser, helping to bring in $400,000 in a single evening-a record for a Democratic House challenger. Down the coast in San Diego, Democrats are looking to pick up a seat in a Navy town that once was regarded as overwhelmingly Republican. But rapid growth in the general population-and budget cuts at the Pentagon-have diluted the voting power of conservative military families. Consequently, three-term Rep. Brian Bilbray has never had an easy election. In 1998, the Democratic nominee was Christine Kehoe, an openly lesbian city council member with relatively little name recognition. She seemed wrong for the district in several ways-but she took Mr. Bilbray to the wire and lost by a razor-thin 3 percentage point margin. This time around, the Democrats have gone with a safer choice. Susan Davis is a state assemblywoman with a moderate voting record and a soft-even matronly-image. In the open primary, she trailed Mr. Bilbray by just 6,000 votes, even though she spent almost none of her war chest on advertising. "We've been pretty quiet so far, and yet we don't have a lot of ground to make up," said campaign manager Lisa Sherman. "We spent our money on organizing, whereas Bilbray spent his on TV advertising. Once we present her to the voters, I think she'll zoom right up." Ms. Davis's hopes for November will depend largely on how she fares with San Diego's thriving Latino community. Largely, but not entirely. By emphasizing soccer-mom issues like education and health care, Ms. Davis thinks she can cut into the incumbent's base of military families. She certainly is putting on her friendliest face for military voters. On a recent fog-shrouded morning in Balboa Park, she showed up early and stayed late at a memorial service for San Diegans lost in the Vietnam War. In her conservative blue suit and bold red, white, and blue scarf, she could have passed for a member of the VFW Ladies' Auxiliary. At an emotional service that bared still-fresh wounds for many in attendance, Ms. Davis clasped hands and patted shoulders like a battlefield nurse encouraging the casualties. "She's all right," murmured one leather-clad vet with a "Bikers for Jesus" tattoo on his shoulder after he got an empathetic handshake from the candidate. Would he vote for the Democrat? "I don't know," he replied. "I don't know much about her. But she gets points for being here, you know?" For the Republicans gathered in Philadelphia, the biker's words could prove prophetic. After two election cycles in which the GOP presidential nominee wrote off California as hopeless, state leaders desperately want George W. Bush to earn some points for showing up in the state. Even if he can't pull enough votes statewide to win the rich electoral sweepstakes, he might at least be able to motivate Republican turnout in a few key congressional districts-especially those in Southern California. In fact, says Marit Babin, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the pressure in California may even be on the Democrats. With Republicans looking strong in the East, South, and Midwest, Democrats probably have to pick up at least three California seats to have any hope at all of re-taking the House. A pickup of only one or two seats will represent only a consolation prize at the end of a long and disappointing night.

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