Opportunities : GOP Faces Hard Road in Senate Campaign

Times Staff Writers

On paper at least, Senate Republicans appear to have a good chance to swell their ranks next year because 16 out of 25 Democratic seats will be on the election ballot.

But it won’t be as easy as it looks because the GOP must work around a heavily pro-incumbent 1982 reapportionment plan that gave many of the Democratic senators so-called “safe districts.”

Republican victories would give a big boost to Gov. George Deukmejian, if he wins election to a second term. In his first term, the Senate mangled his water plan to move additional water to Southern California and refused to confirm some of his key appointees.

For Democrats, merely holding their own and maintaining dominance of the Senate would benefit Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley if he defeated Deukmejian in next year’s gubernatorial election.


Democrats, in control of the Senate since 1971, currently hold a hefty 25-to-15-vote majority over Republicans, only two votes short of the two-thirds majority necessary to approve appropriations or override gubernatorial vetoes. Nine Democrats are not up for reelection.

Eyes on Stiern’s Seat

The seat that Republicans say they have the best shot at will open up because of the retirement of seven-term Sen. Walter W. Stiern (D-Bakersfield), the dean of the Legislature. The district was drawn by Democrats to keep it in their win column.

It stretches from the conservative and white voting precincts of Kern County, over the Tehachapis, all the way down to the liberal and black voting precincts of Pasadena.


Even though the district was tailor-made for Stiern and the Democrats, Republican tacticians say they feel that it is their best chance because it will be the only majority party seat in the Senate without an incumbent.

But numerous opportunities don’t always translate into numerous wins. Four years ago, the Republicans had a chance to cut into the Democratic majority when nine Democratic incumbents were up for reelection. All the Democrats won. Democrats also won five of six open seats and ousted two GOP incumbents.

For the 1986 elections, it now appears that the heavily contested races will occur in Northern California where Republicans maintain that they have a fighting chance in battles against well-entrenched Democratic incumbents. In the south, Democratic incumbents seem to be relatively safe.

Republicans Wary

Although Republicans are optimistic about their chances of reducing the Democrats’ majority next year, GOP leaders are by no means predicting that they will win the six seats they need to wrest control of the Senate from the Democrats.

With only four seats of their own to defend next year and with Democrats conceding three of them to Republicans, Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Sen. John Seymour of Anaheim said: “The bottom line is (that) we are really not threatened in 1986 with losing seats. The question becomes how many (Democratic seats) can we pick up?”

Seymour said Republicans believe that, in addition to the Stiern seat, they have a chance at two or three other Senate seats. “Holding onto 16 seats becomes a very expensive proposition for Democrats. They have a lot more exposure and risk than we do,” Seymour said.

He said the 1982 reapportionment was a key factor in restricting GOP chances. “There are some seats held by Democrats that you couldn’t blow the incumbent out with dynamite,” he said.


Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti of Los Angeles, the Democratic Party leader, said he believes that Democrats will hold their own.

‘About as We Are Now’

“I am not worried,” Roberti said, although he conceded that Democrats will be forced into a defensive posture. “I suspect that we will come through just about as we are now, 25 to 15 Democratic, if I were forced to make a bet.”

Roberti said his goal is to raise $1.5 million himself to help protect incumbent Democrats. But this will be just a fraction of the overall sums that will be raised and spent to hold the Democratic seats.

The 40 members of the Senate are elected to staggered four-year terms, with half the seats at stake every two years. In the 1984 elections, two GOP senators--Becky Morgan of Los Altos Hills and John Doolittle of Citrus Heights--each spent in the $1-million range, and many other candidates spent $500,000.

Republicans say an issue that could affect legislative races up and down the state is the confirmation election of California Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird in November. Republicans express hope that she will be a political liability for Democrats because of what they perceive as voter anger at the liberal bent of the court.

“An issue like that can have the impact of what the issue of Proposition 13 had in 1978,” Seymour said of the property tax cut initiative that has been credited with helping to sweep many Republicans into office.

Seymour added: “We think (Bird) could be a real cutting-edge issue. It puts Democrats in a real difficult position.”


Changing Demographics

But Roberti disagreed.

“There are just too many issues upon which the public will cast a vote for or against to say that is the only issue,” Roberti said. “I guess Republicans would like to say that is the only issue, but people are going to cast votes on the Legislature based on what a lawmaker can or can’t do.”

Republicans also say they will be helped by the changing demographics in key Senate districts. The GOP has been out-registering Democrats in some areas of the state, such as Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and parts of Los Angeles County.

One factor cited for the increasing GOP registrations is the popularity of President Reagan.

“Ronald Reagan has done more for the Republican Party than anyone has ever given him credit for, and 1986 will be a good year,” said a top Republican strategist who asked for anonymity.

‘We Are Concerned’

Roberti conceded that the voter registration trend favors Republicans but he said he does not think it will result in many wins for the GOP in the Senate.

“Yes, we are concerned about losing registration. But I think what is happening is that very, very conservative Democrats are now registering Republican. They are registering the way they vote,” he said.

In Stiern’s 16th District, the GOP is putting its hopes behind veteran Republican Assemblyman Don Rogers of Bakersfield, who is preparing a campaign for the soon-to-be-vacant seat. The district includes all or parts of Kern, Kings, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. Democrats hold a 55.4%-to-35.2% edge in voter registration, but Republicans have been out-registering Democrats.

Democratic Senate leaders are trying to persuade Kern Community College District Chancellor Jim Young to become their candidate. Young told The Times that he is considering running, but has not made up his mind.

Match-Up Possibilities

Candidates for Senate do not have to file their notices of intention to run with the secretary of state until Feb. 5. Thus, many match-ups are still uncertain. Here is where much of the current interest is focused:

- In Northern California’s 4th District, Senate Republican Leader James W. Nielsen of Woodland is the incumbent Democrats say they think they have a realistic chance of beating. Nielsen is finishing a second term after his surprise defeat of a veteran Democrat incumbent in 1978, but Democrats hold an advantage in voter registration in the eight-county district, outnumbering the GOP by a 50.2%-to-39.1% margin. Democrats have not decided on a candidate.

- Democratic Sen. Leroy Greene (D-Carmichael) in the 6th District is expected to be challenged for his second term by Sacramento County Supervisor Sandra R. Smoley. Republicans maintain that Smoley has a strong constituency and is regarded as a good fund-raiser. The trend in voter registration in the district favors the Republicans, who have gained a 2% jump in registration, from 30% to 32%, while Democrats have dropped from 59% to 57.5%.

- Republicans are taking a hard look at Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) in the 10th District. Lockyer, a former assemblyman who easily won his first term in 1982, has drawn attention this year because of his temperamental behavior. He was forced to apologize to Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) after lashing out at her for “mindless blather” at a committee hearing. As a result, he was criticized by the Women Legislators Caucus for “irresponsible behavior.” A possible opponent is former GOP Assemblyman Gilbert Marguth of Livermore, whom Lockyer soundly defeated in 1982. Democrats hold a 56.4% to 30.7% edge in voter registration.

- First-term freshman Sen. Dan McCorquodale (D-San Jose) in the 12th District, which includes parts of Santa Clara and Stanislaus counties, is expected to face a tough challenge. In the district, the GOP trails Democrats in registration by a 54%-to-34.2% margin. Republicans say they have conducted polls showing that McCorquodale is not as well known as he should be.