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 a Knights of Columbus Hall here. Then the former Nowalk councilman marshaled his supporters with the words: “Let’s eat breakfast.”
When the vote count was finally complete, Green had won by less than 2 percentage points districtwide. Knabe won in the Orange County portion of the district by more than 5,000 votes. About a quarter of the voters in the district, which extends northward into Los Angeles County, live in Orange County.
Throughout the long night, Knabe’s lead was slender enough to keep alive his 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.
“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.”
The 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, will probably total well more than $2 million by the time all the bills are paid.
Knabe, an aide to Los Angeles County Supervisor Deane Dana, knew from the outset that he would have to fight hard to beat Green, who won the seat only last year in an expensive special election after Sen. Paul Carpenter (D-Cypress) was elected to the State Board of Equalization. Early in the race, Knabe’s polls showed him substantially behind Green.
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 Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti of Los Angeles, known as a liberal Democrat.
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 plugged by conservative commentator Bruce Herschensohn, and he dovetailed campaign themes with those of the GOP presidential race. He spent the last 2 months walking precincts.
“I don’t think we could do any more,” Knabe said.
Morse said Knabe actually fared better than expected because he picked up a large percentage of the undecided vote in the district. Democratic tracking polls in the closing days showed that 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,” he said.
Times staff writers Laura Kurtzman and Steven R. Churm contributed to this article.