In a low-key election, typical campaign strategy is to identify the voters most likely to support your candidate and quietly but repeatedly urge them to the polls.
That's what's happening now in the campaign to replace former Anaheim state Sen. John Seymour. Except for a few lawn signs, the race is almost invisible. But like miners digging for votes, the candidates are sending letters and making phone calls to the relative handful of voters most sympathetic to their issues.
For candidates and political observers alike, the race in the 35th Senate District is difficult to analyze. Because it will take so few votes to win, a tiny pocket of support--perhaps 1% of the district's 320,000 voters--could swing the race to any one of at least four candidates.
"This is a very spooky race because you don't know how it's going," said Doris Allen, a Republican assemblywoman from Anaheim and a candidate in the race. "You can see the polls, but you don't know who's going to go in and vote. It's really a chess game."
Several factors have contributed to make this race even more quiet than most off-year special elections.
There are at least four candidates who are well known in Orange County politics, and no one is a clear front-runner. They include three Assembly members--Allen, Nolan Frizzelle (R-Fountain Valley) and John R. Lewis (R-Orange)--as well as Orange County Transportation Commissioner Dana Reed.
Also, money for mail or advertising is extremely tight, partly because many regular contributors know more than one candidate and don't want to choose sides. The recession has also shrunk the pool of political money available.
In this race, 10 candidates combined might spend less than $500,000 compared to a special state Senate race in Orange County last year in which four candidates spent nearly $2 million.
On top of the financial woes, the Persian Gulf War has made it difficult for candidates to attract attention.
"It's a quiet campaign because everybody is just going to their supporters," said Sal Russo, consultant to Frizzelle. "There are three candidates who have a decent shot at it."
The special election was called for by Gov. Pete Wilson after he appointed Seymour in January to fill his former U.S. Senate seat. The election will be held March 19 and, if no one receives more than 50% of the vote, a runoff will be held May 14 between the top vote-getters from each party.
The district, however, is predominantly Republican, so the GOP nominee is expected to be a heavy favorite in a runoff. The district includes the cities of Anaheim, Orange, Tustin, Fountain Valley, Westminster and part of Irvine.
There are 10 candidates in all--eight Republicans, one Democrat and one Libertarian. The other Republicans are Westminster Mayor Charles V. Smith, attorneys William A. Dougherty and John S. Parise, and businessman Jim Wronski. The Democrat is attorney Francis X. Hoffman and the Libertarian is Eric Sprik, who is in the dry-cleaning business.
As quiet as this race has been, many observers believe it is about to break wide open.
There has hardly been any negative campaigning so far, but with the field still crowded together and a little more than week left before the election, insiders think a few of the candidates will try to blast their way out of the pack with a barrage of attacks.
"Now is the time for the Scuds to fly," said Dave Ellis, a Republican consultant not involved in this race. "It's going to get very negative."
Two of the most likely topics might be aimed at front-runners Reed and Lewis.
Lewis was indicted by a grand jury in 1989 for forging former President Ronald Reagan's signature on campaign literature in 1986. The indictment was later overturned by an appeals court.
Reed, an attorney, is the subject of an ongoing conflict-of-interest investigation by the California State Bar. Reed allegedly provided legal advice to both sides of an unsuccessful municipal ballot measure in Cathedral City that sought to legalize card casinos.
Reed and Allen could also be attacked as carpetbaggers because both moved into the district to run for the 35th District seat.
Reed has tried to prepare his voters for an attack with a letter mailed Thursday that says in a headline: "Beware of the smear and false information you will soon be receiving from the right-wing zealots."
Among the four front-runners, the field is divided among different geographic and philosophical support bases.
Lewis and Frizzelle are both counting on large turnouts from their Assembly districts, which substantially overlap the Senate district. They are also both conservatives fighting over the right wing of the party.
The county's largest conservative organization, the Coordinating Republican Assembly, could not decide between the two at an endorsement meeting last week.
Meanwhile, Allen and Reed are running as different kinds of moderate candidates.
Reed is making a strong appeal to Democratic voters and moderate Republicans based largely on his support for abortion rights. Lewis, Allen and Frizzelle all support the outlawing of abortion.
Allen is appealing to moderate Republicans and Democrats based on her record regarding the issues of education and the environment. Allen is a former school board member and she successfully sponsored a statewide initiative last year to ban gill-net fishing because of its harm to dolphin and other marine mammals.
"There are a number of different ways the vote could split on this thing," Lewis said. "You have geographical considerations that benefit Frizzelle and myself. You have philosophical splits in which Frizzelle and I would be helped by one wing of the party and Dana Reed and Doris Allen by another. Then, Doris Allen is the only woman on the ballot.
"So you never know what's pushing voters over the top," he said. "I feel good about it, but I think it's up for grabs."
35TH STATE SENATE CANDIDATES
Occupation: state Assembly member.
Background: Elected to Assembly in 1982, previously served five years on the Huntington Beach Union High School District board. Former real estate agent, co-owner of lighting company, loan officer. Active in school's anti-busing movement in late 1970s.
William A. Dougherty
Home: Villa Park
Background: Attorney for 35 years specializing in white-collar criminal defense. Represented Christopher Boyce in espionage trial made famous in movie "The Falcon and the Snowman." Ran for Congress in Tustin, 1968. Ran for state Senate in 1980 and 1982.
Home: Fountain Valley
Occupation: state Assemblyman
Background: Optometrist for 30 years. Elected to Assembly in 1980.
John R. Lewis
Occupation: state Assemblyman.
Background: Worked with family real estate interests. Elected to Assembly in 1980.
John S. Parise
Home: Santa Ana
Occupation: Attorney/insurance broker
Background: Insurance broker for 40 years. Buena Park city councilman, 1960-61. Ran for state insurance commissioner, 1990.
Home: Costa Mesa
Background: Attorney specializing in election laws since 1975. Orange County transportation commissioner since 1988. Former deputy state controller, 1969-71. Undersecretary for transportation, 1983-85. Ran for state Assembly in Los Angeles in 1977.
Charles V. Smith
Occupation: Mayor, Westminster.
Background: Retired aerospace engineer at Rockwell. Has served on Westminster City Council since 1984. Elected mayor in 1988 and '90. Served on Westminster Planning Commission for six years ending in 1984.
Occupation: Office-cleaning contractor
Background: Cleaning contractor since 1970. Lawyer, licensed realtor and credentialed as a teacher.
Francis X. Hoffman
Background: Orange County Board of Education member since 1984. Unsuccessful candidate for Congress in 1990 and state Senate in 1986.