In a last-minute push to raise cash, a top aide to Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) pleaded with Washington lobbyists for campaign contributions to fend off an unexpectedly tough primary challenge.
In telephone calls made last week, the aide reportedly told lobbyists who represent Orange County interests that a private poll shows Dornan's June 2 primary opponent, former Orange County Superior Court Judge Judith A. Ryan, trailing by only five percentage points.
On Wednesday, Dornan denied that the poll, commissioned on his behalf, shows the race to be that close. "I'm winning. There's no problem," said the seven-term conserva-tive, who is facing an unexpectedly spirited primary challenge from Ryan, a political novice.
Dornan declined to release specific figures, except to say that the poll shows 29% of the voters remain undecided, an exceptionally large number with the Republican primary less than a week away. The Dornan-Ryan contest in Orange County's new 46th Congressional District is one of the most heated and closely watched in the nation.
Ryan, 49, is attacking the 59-year-old Dornan on his strong stand against abortion. Dornan is seeking to portray Ryan, who lives in Yorba Linda, outside the central Orange County district, as a carpetbagger who is a tool of liberal, feminist and Democratic interests.
Dornan had raised $272,000 as of May 13, the end of the last reporting period, while Ryan had raised $165,000. Ryan campaign officials said that since May 13 they have raised an additional $45,000.
On Wednesday, Dornan aides told the lobbyist contributors that they would return their checks, saying the congressman has a policy against accepting contributions from those who represent Orange County government agencies and companies--and who routinely seek Dornan's help.
"It was my mistake to solicit the two guys I did," said Joseph Eule, Dornan's legislative director. "I called them on my own, on my own time. Our opponent has a lot of outside money coming in, so I thought I should call these guys and solicit some money from them." Eule told The Times that the checks, which totaled $750, were mailed Saturday.
Aides on the congressional payroll are not supposed to participate in campaign activities on office time or use resources paid for by taxpayers--such as office telephones--for campaign purposes.
In practice, however, the House ethics committee has granted aides wide latitude to perform campaign functions, as long as their boss, the member of Congress, certifies that the campaign activity is on the aides' own time and does not conflict with their official duties.
A lobbyist who spoke only on the condition of anonymity described the solicitation he received last Friday as frantic.
"They called and said they needed the money right away, and that they had a poll showing Ryan was within five points," the lobbyist said.
Eule, however, said he never used the five-point figure. "I don't have a poll that shows Ryan within five points of Bob Dornan. It shows the boss clearly ahead." He said he could not provide further details, but added, "There are a lot of people who think the race is close, and we're not taking any chances."
Another lobbyist, who also asked not to be named, said, "I can tell you they are very nervous," adding that it is unusual for Dornan to solicit contributions from lobbyists, especially those based in Washington.
One of the most successful fund-raisers in Congress, Dornan in the past has relied almost exclusively on nationwide, direct-mail campaigns to raise as much as $1 million a year.
One of the lobbyists who was solicited said he responded gladly. "Dornan is kind of an interesting character in a lot of ways, but in terms of Orange County, he's a pretty solid guy," the lobbyist said. "He's been a very good person for us and for Orange County."
Eileen Padberg, Ryan's political consultant, said she would not be surprised if Ryan had narrowed the gap with Dornan, largely because the former judge has walked more than half the precincts in the new district.