One of California's biggest bankrollers of conservative Republican candidates and causes announced Tuesday that he will run for a central Orange County state Senate seat in a special election expected to be held next spring.
Robert Hurtt Jr., owner of Container Supply Co. in Garden Grove, has never run for elected office. But his candidacy in the 32nd Senate District is being taken seriously by political insiders because he could outspend his opponents using his own money and, so far, there is no big-name candidate in the race.
Campaign finance statements indicate that Hurtt, 47, contributed more than $540,000 to candidates and organizations involved in this year's election.
Political observers linked Hurtt with California's religious right movement, because many of its candidates benefited from his contributions. He was also included on a list of prospective delegates to the Republican National Convention that was prepared by evangelist Pat Robertson.
But a staff assistant for Hurtt said Tuesday that his politics are business-oriented, not religious. Danielle Madison also said that Hurtt did not attend the GOP national convention and that he was unaware his name was on Robertson's list.
Madison said Hurtt was in his office Tuesday, but he did not respond to an interview request from The Times. Instead, he announced his candidacy in a faxed statement.
"There is a critical shortage of general business representation and especially manufacturing representation in our Legislature," his statement said. "If we're going to survive and prosper, it's time to change California's attitude toward business."
Gov. Pete Wilson is expected to call a special election in the 32nd Senate District next spring to replace Edward R. Royce (R-Anaheim), who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives last month. The district includes the cities of Fullerton, Garden Grove and Santa Ana.
Privately, some Orange County conservatives were also concerned about Hurtt's candidacy because many top leaders of the party's right wing have already committed their support to Brian Bennett, a former aide to Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) and the only other Republican candidate in the race.
A showdown between the two conservatives could create rifts between top Republican leaders at the same time the party is trying to come together after a disappointing performance in last month's election.
"I've always thought that competitive primaries are a healthy thing, but you can make the case that the party is trying to regroup, and we don't want to lose seats in the Senate," Bennett said. "So if people are capable of putting their egos aside and waiting their turn, that's not necessarily a bad thing."
Bennett has never been elected to political office either. But as a longtime aide to Dornan, Bennett said, he expects his experience in politics to convince voters that he would be a better officeholder than Hurtt.
"His only asset is his checkbook," Bennett said. "He's new to politics, he doesn't have any background and he doesn't have any experience."
Political observers say a divisive conservative battle could create an opportunity for a moderate Republican or Democrat to win the seat. The GOP has a 1% advantage over Democrats among registered voters in the 32nd Senate District.
Garden Grove Assemblyman Tom Umberg, the only Democrat in Orange County's delegation to Sacramento, is considering whether to enter the race. His candidacy could make the contest a major showdown for the parties statewide as Democrats attempt to steal a formerly Republican seat.
Umberg could enter the race as the best-known candidate. And he is a proven fund-raiser, collecting about $600,000 for his reelection campaign this year. Umberg's chief of staff, George Urch, said he was happy to see Hurtt enter the race.
"I think what it's going to mean is a bloody Republican primary," Urch said. "It's definitely going to be a lot more beneficial to the Democrats."
Democrat Ken LeBlanc, owner of an auto parts company, is the only other candidate to have officially announced his bid for the seat.
Based on endorsements alone, the Republican battle between Hurtt and Bennett is already shaping up as a major confrontation.
Bennett, who announced his campaign last week, claimed support from four of Orange County's five congressmen and four of its Sacramento lawmakers, including some--like state Sen. John R. Lewis (R-Orange) and Assemblyman Mickey Conroy (R-Orange)--who have been recipients of Hurtt's contributions.
Bennett had especially hoped to lock up conservative support because the party's right wing has, in the past, proved itself almost invincible in Orange County special elections, where turnout is typically low.
Hurtt's list of endorsements is headed by Fullerton Assemblyman Ross Johnson, who had previously indicated that he might consider a campaign for the seat himself.
Hurtt also claimed support from some of Sacramento's top Republicans, including Assembly Minority Leader Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), Assistant Minority Leader Andrea Seastrand (R-San Luis Obispo) and state Sens. Bill Leonard (R-Upland) and Tim Leslie (R-Carnelian Bay).
"I got those endorsements because I earned them," Bennett said. "He didn't. . . . He paid for them."