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California Gets Its First Woman Senator : State: Boxer claims victory in race with Herschensohn. ‘Tonight, history is being made,’ Feinstein says.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Democrat Dianne Feinstein became California’s first woman U.S. senator Tuesday by defeating incumbent Republican John Seymour, and her ticket mate, Rep. Barbara Boxer, claimed victory in her race for the second U.S. Senate seat at stake in the historic election.

Boxer, 51, the five-term congresswoman from Marin County, took a narrow lead on the basis of partial returns in the vote count over conservative Republican commentator Bruce Herschensohn, 60, of Los Angeles and exit polls indicated a narrow Boxer victory.

A Boxer victory would cap a historic sweep of California’s two U.S. Senate seats, which were at stake in the same election for the first time in state history. Coupled with Bill Clinton’s capture of the state’s 54 electoral votes, the twin Senate triumph would give Democrats their most impressive electoral victory in three decades--before Ronald Reagan became governor.

Seymour, speaking to supporters at the Republican election night center at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, conceded before half the vote was counted, but insisted that Herschensohn--whom he rarely mentioned during the entire campaign--would win.

Herschensohn declined to concede and told reporters he planned to make no statement on the outcome until all the votes were counted, probably sometime today.

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Feinstein and Boxer appeared one after the other before cheering Democrats at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel.

“Tonight, history is being made,” Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor, said as her husband, investment banker Richard C. Blum, stood at her side.

“Tonight is not just about winning an election but about changing America’s course. It’s about rekindling our hopes and dreams by ending the gridlock in Washington,” she said.

Then, Boxer said: “Once again California is on the cutting edge of history, sending two women to the U.S. Senate. . . . I am here to tell you that the American people have taken back the country.”

Boxer’s prospects apparently were boosted by a heavy turnout that appeared to match Secretary of State March Fong Eu’s pre-election forecast of 75%, about 2% higher than in the last presidential election in 1988. As many as 20% of the vote was cast by absentee ballot.

California has not had two Democrats in the Senate under a Democratic President since before the Civil War, in the Administration of James Buchanan. Nor have both California senators been from the northern part of the state since the end of World War II.

Feinstein’s victory gave her a measure of revenge for her narrow loss of the governorship two years ago to Republican Pete Wilson. Ironically, Wilson’s resignation of his U.S. Senate seat, so he could be sworn in as the state’s chief executive, gave Feinstein the opportunity to win one of the state’s three biggest elective prizes.

Feinstein, 59, the former mayor of San Francisco, will be sworn into the Senate as soon as the election results are certified, which is expected to occur Dec. 12, the secretary of state’s office said.

She will serve the final two years of the Senate term won by Wilson in 1988 and filled by Seymour since early 1991, when he was appointed by Wilson on an interim basis. She is expected to seek a full six-year term in two years, at the same time Wilson presumably will be seeking reelection.

Feinstein’s big victory was no surprise. She held a commanding lead in the opinion polls from wire to wire, from the June 2 primary to Tuesday’s balloting. Seymour never could establish a strong image of himself in the minds of California voters, he acknowledged Tuesday night.

However, in the contest for the regular six-year term to succeed Democrat Alan Cranston, the final polls had shown Boxer and Herschensohn running neck and neck.

Democratic Chairman Angelides said the party funneled $250,000 to the Boxer campaign in the closing days of the race to help Boxer conduct a television advertising blitz.

Boxer campaign manager Rose Kapolczynski said Boxer also got a big boost from campaigning with Feinstein all weekend.

“The momentum at the end really helped us,” Kapolczynski said. “It created an excitement about the pair of Democratic candidates that the Republicans just couldn’t compete with. It gave everyone a signal that things would be different in Washington if they sent both Barbara and Dianne back to the Senate.”

In fact, Seymour and Herschensohn never campaigned as a team after their June primary victories, as Boxer and Feinstein did, or even during the final weekend of the campaign, when Republican candidates traditionally tour the state together.

After the primary, few gave Herschensohn much chance of winning because he was the most conservative Republican nominated for the U.S. Senate in the memory of state political experts and was largely unknown in Northern California. But he got the jump on Boxer in the critical and costly duel of television advertising in mid-September, battering Boxer on her use of congressional perks and for 143 overdrafts on the now defunct House bank.

Trailing by as much as 22% in the statewide Field Poll within a month of the election, Herschensohn surged in the polls. He relished the prospect of winning the Senate seat held in the early 1950s by one of his heroes, Richard M. Nixon, for whom he worked as a White House domestic adviser up to the day Nixon resigned in disgrace.

Seymour, all but conceding even before the polls were closed, said he would not have done anything different if he had to race to run over again.

“I played the hand of cards that I was dealt,” Seymour said in an interview at the GOP’s election night headquarters, the Century Plaza Hotel. “I did the very best I could.”

If Boxer also won, the Democratic victory would be the biggest for the party at least since 1958, when Edmund G. (Pat) Brown was elected governor and the late Clair Engle was elected to the Senate.

No woman has ever served as a U.S. senator from California. And no other state ever has had two women in the Senate chamber at the same time.

For the first time in California history, both U.S. Senate seats were being filled in the same election. Normally, six-year Senate terms are staggered.

After Wilson won the governorship over Feinstein in 1990, he resigned his Senate seat in January, 1991, to take office in Sacramento. The law allowed Wilson to appoint a successor to serve through the next general election. He chose Seymour, an old friend, fellow former mayor and fellow ex-Marine who was serving in the state Senate from Orange County.

Feinstein had barely rested from her grueling campaign for governor when she announced that she was interested in the Senate and probably would run against Wilson’s appointee.

Feinstein easily defeated state Controller Gray Davis in the June 2 primary and breezed through a general election campaign in which Seymour tried to brand her as a political insider, attacking her on a state lawsuit that alleged irregularities in her 1990 campaign reporting statement.

Most observers faulted Seymour’s handlers for “going negative” on Feinstein before he had established his identity with California voters. As late as three weeks before the election, polls showed that half of California’s voters did not know who Seymour was.

Although the Feinstein-Seymour matchup seemed ordained from the beginning, few political experts were laying money last spring on a fall Boxer-Herschensohn contest.

Boxer had campaigned longer than anyone, even before Cranston announced Nov. 8, 1990, that he would not seek a fifth term. Boxer is a transplanted New Yorker who became a political activist in her adopted Marin County during the Vietnam War. She was elected a county supervisor in 1976, and six years later was elected to a congressional district covering portions of Marin and San Francisco counties.

Herschensohn, who built a strong Southern California base with his conservative commentaries on KABC radio and television, ran for the Republican nomination for the Senate in 1986, but lost a crowded primary contest to moderate Ed Zschau, who lost an extremely close race to Cranston.

This time, Herschensohn entered the contest earlier and was better organized and better financed. But again he was up against a popular Republican moderate from Northern California, Rep. Tom Campbell of Stanford, a protege of Zschau’s. The candidates waged a bitter campaign in which constant attacks on Campbell’s record kept the congressman off stride. Herschensohn won the primary.

To win the Democratic nomination, Boxer had to come from well behind to defeat two better-known Democratic men: Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, who lost the U.S. Senate race to Wilson in 1988, and Rep. Mel Levine of Los Angeles.


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