The bright strand of green and white helium-filled campaign balloons had already sunk to the floor by the time Democrat Cecil N. Green finally declared his victory in the 33rd Senate District race, concluding a close and bitter battle for the conservative vote.
Complaining that his opponent, Republican Donald R. Knabe of Cerritos, had waged the most negative campaign he had ever been involved in, Green claimed his seat at 4:04 a.m. before a sparse crowd of about 15 die-hard supporters in the Knights of Columbus Hall. Then the former Norwalk councilman marshaled his supporters with the words, "Let's eat breakfast."
Green's lead throughout the long night was slender enough to keep alive Knabe's hope that the district's Reagan Democrats could carry him into office, and slender enough to stir worry at Green headquarters. "Frankly, we're very surprised at the narrow margin," Green spokesman Larry Morse said as the election results dribbled in.
In the end, Green retained a slim hold on the vote, beating Knabe by less than 2 percentage points.
"We're obviously disappointed," a cheerful-sounding Knabe said Wednesday morning. "But on the other hand--that we came so close with an incumbent . . . that is a heck of a job on our part."
Elsewhere in the Southeast's Senate districts, incumbents had no difficulty staying in office, defeating their opponents by at least a 2-1 ratio. Sen. Robert G. Beverly (R-Redondo Beach) was elected to a fourth term in the 29th District. Sen. William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights) will return to Sacramento for a third term, and in the 27th District, Sen. Bill Greene (D-Los Angeles) won with an overwhelming majority.
The suburban, blue-collar 33rd District, predominantly Democratic by registration and conservative by nature, attracted enormous sums of money from both parties, each of which viewed it as an important prize. Spending, much of it on political brochures that clogged voters' mailboxes, will probably exceed a total of $2 million by the time all the bills are paid.
Knabe, the top aide for conservative Los Angeles County Supervisor Deane Dana, knew from the outset that he would have to fight hard to beat Green, who had won the seat only last year in a special election noted for its costliness. Early in the race, Knabe's polls showed him substantially behind Green, whose year of incumbency had spread his name throughout the district.
To catch up, Knabe presented himself as "the conservative candidate," moving well to the right of Green, whom he branded a liberal. Knabe packed his mailers with attacks on Green, noting often that in the last election Green had received more than $1 million from the political coffers of the Senate's liberal Democratic leader, Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti of Los Angeles.
Flag and Family
Wrapping himself in flag and family, Knabe sent copies of the Pledge of Alliance to voters, advocated the death penalty for youthful gang killers and accused Green of being soft on AIDS-related issues. He ran a string of radio advertisements in which he was supported by conservative commentator Bruce Herschensohn, and he dovetailed campaign themes with those of the GOP presidential race. He spent the last two months walking precincts.
"I don't think we could do anymore," Knabe said yesterday.
His mailers earned harsh words from the Green camp, which accused Knabe of lies, distortions and deliberate smears. While ignoring Knabe in the early stages of the campaign, Green turned his own guns on Knabe as the election neared. Among the mailers sent out in the final days of the campaign, one asserted that Knabe was responsible for a "jumbo pak" of lies. "Seven Whoppers," the Green mailer proclaimed in red, disputing seven of Knabe's statements about Green's record.
Knabe, a former Cerritos councilman, defended his campaign, saying he had to be aggressive to overcome the advantages of a well-financed incumbent. "I feel very comfortable with my mail program," he said early Wednesday while nervously watching election results in the ballroom of the Lakewood Country Club. "If anything, I wasn't tough enough." He also complained that the press had been protective of Green.
Unhappy With Strategy
But a member of Knabe's campaign said privately that Knabe was not happy with the campaign strategy molded by the political consulting team of Jackie Campbell and Angela Bay Buchanan, and state Republican leaders. Knabe would have preferred to wage a "nice guy" campaign, the worker said, but was told by his political advisers that his only chance was to go after Green. So he did.
Spokesman Morse said Knabe fared better than expected because he picked up a large percentage of the undecided vote in the district, which extends from southeast Los Angeles County into northwest Orange County and includes the Southeast communities of Cerritos, Norwalk, Downey, Bellflower, Artesia, Lakewood and Santa Fe Springs. Democratic tracking polls in the closing days showed a substantial block of GOP voters "were soft on Knabe," Morse said Wednesday morning.
"We didn't expect all those people to vote Republican, but apparently they did," Morse said.
Although Knabe discounted any coattail effect from the GOP presidential victory, Morse said Green may have been hurt by George Bush's success at the polls. Morse said that Bush received as much as 65% of the district's vote. "That had to help Knabe stay close."
Noting that Knabe easily won the Orange County portion of the district, Morse said: "For Knabe, there just wasn't enough Orange County to go around."
Times staff writers Laura Kurtzman and Steven R. Churm contributed to this story.