The only Republican to overcome the Watergate backlash and win a congressional seat 14 years ago again appears headed back to Washington, but by the narrowest margin in his political career.
Early on Wednesday, Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino, in one of the most expensive and tightly fought congressional races in the country, was holding off state Sen. Gary K. Hart by only 2,276 votes, a difference of about 1% of the total votes cast.
Returns showed Lagomarsino (R-Ventura) with 108,257 votes, or 49.9% of the total. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) received 105,981 votes, or 48.9%. Libertarian candidate Robert Donaldson of Newbury Park collected 2,700 votes, or 1.2%.
“I bet a lot of people could have made a lot of money on this campaign,” Lagomarsino said. “I don’t think the Hart campaign thought we’d work as hard as we did or raise as much money as we did, and I think they underestimated the intelligence of the people here.”
However, a Santa Barbara County election official said Wednesday that as many as “a few thousand” absentee ballots had not yet been counted. Ventura election officials said there were nearly 10,000 untabulated absentee ballots, but they did not know how many of those were from the portion of the county in the 19th Congressional District. Officials in both counties said the ballots would not be finally counted for at least a week.
Hart on Tuesday said he did not know if he would benefit heavily from those votes, saying his campaign had not focused on absentee voters.
While Lagomarsino attended lavishly catered Republican Party celebrations in Santa Barbara and Ventura, Hart held vigil at Montecito’s Miramar Hotel, where several hundred of his supporters munched on homemade bologna sandwiches, apples and Fig Newtons.
With the gap between the two candidates narrowing late Tuesday evening, Hart supporters remained hopeful that the 14-year Sacramento legislator could upset the longtime congressman. But when final returns rolled in before 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, Hart acknowledged that there might be little room for hope. He vowed to a tearful crowd that he would fight the GOP incumbent again.
“The issues in this campaign are too important and the race too close to walk away from it all, and we’re not going to walk away,” he said. “If we came up short, we’ll be back again.”
His campaign manager, Jerry Seedborg, said the close results showed that support was beginning to wane for Lagomarsino, who is accustomed to getting 60% to 70% of the vote.
“Anytime you can knock 20% off an incumbent’s traditional vote base, that’s pretty significant,” Seedborg said. “At least it was a fair fight, and Lagomarsino has never had that before.”
Lagomarsino campaign officials, however, dismissed any notion that his popularity has dwindled. “The congressman is not used to having someone spend $1.4 million to defeat him,” said Lagomarsino campaign manager Ed Bedwell. “Maybe we weren’t as battle-toughened. But we sure learned fast.”
Drew National Attention
The race to represent Santa Barbara County and about half of Ventura County, into which each candidate pumped well over $1 million, had attracted national media attention as one of the few congressional duels in which an incumbent faced a serious threat from a popular and well-financed challenger.
The battle also was portrayed by some analysts as a referendum on the Ronald Reagan era, a reflection of the sharp ideological split between the two candidates and the fact that the President, who stumped for Lagomarsino, calls the district home.
“While I’m not surprised by the outcome, I’m surprised at how close it was,” said Alan Wyner, professor of political science at UC Santa Barbara. “It just shows how hard it is to defeat a longtime incumbent who has ample financial resources and who has not been involved in any sort of scandal.”
Another observer cautioned against interpreting the results as a sign of Lagomarsino’s decline.
“The big numbers he’s used to are probably artificially high,” said Charles Stewart, professor of political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“The best-quality challengers have stayed out of the race in the past,” he said. “All this says is that the district is much more competitive naturally.”
The race was considered tight from the beginning, particularly because both candidates have been popular in the same region for years and both have been successful in luring voters from the opposing party.
Lagomarsino, 62, a former Ojai mayor and state senator, has found support among the area’s agricultural producers, defense contractors and oil companies. A champion for the 60,000 defense-related jobs in the district, he has been easily reelected since his first congressional bid in 1974. In his last three victories, his share of the vote has grown from 61% to 68% to 72%.
The 45-year-old Hart has built a strong following among education leaders, union groups and environmentalists in a state Senate district that stretches 200 miles down the coast from Santa Barbara to Malibu. As chairman of the Senate Education Committee, he co-sponsored a massive funding and reform bill for California schools.
Echoing George Bush’s attacks on Michael S. Dukakis, Lagomarsino tried to portray Hart as a liberal extremist who is “out of tune” with voters on crime, drugs and national defense.
Lagomarsino, a wealthy lawyer who traces his roots to two Ventura County pioneer families, has received high ratings from the American Conservative Union, the American Security Council and the California Congressional Recognition Program, a privately endowed trust at Claremont McKenna College.
Among his financial backers are political action committees for Chevron Oil, Sunkist, National Federation of Independent Businesses, 3M, Lockheed, Blue Diamond Growers and the Council for National Defense, a Virginia-based conservative think tank.
Portrayed as Ineffectual
Hart tried to paint the GOP incumbent as an ineffectual congressman who is insensitive to educational and environmental concerns. Frequently, Hart charged that Lagomarsino had “struck out” in Washington, where none of the 20 bills he has sponsored since 1986 were voted into law.
A former high school teacher who earned his master’s degree in education from Harvard, Hart was endorsed by the Sierra Club, the California League of Conservation Voters and Environmental Action.
Among his sources of funding were political action committees for the American Federation of Teachers, United Food and Commercial Workers Union, United Auto Workers, National Abortion Rights Action League, Committee of Letter Carriers and key Democratic campaign committees.
Of the 319,528 voters in the 19th Congressional District, 148,299 are registered as Democrats, and 131,398 are registered as Republicans.