It was a lot of work, but Chet Dotter has fond memories of the spring of 1992 when he and Michael Huffington drove throughout the rolling green hills of California’s Central Coast and talked politics with local ranchers.
Huffington, a Republican and former Texas oilman, was the citizen candidate with fresh ideas that Dotter thought was desperately needed in Congress. He was also a multimillionaire who could finance his own campaign and take office without any debts to the traditional powerbrokers.
Dotter shared much of the credit when Huffington narrowly beat a veteran GOP incumbent in the June primary. But when the freshman congressman announced only a few months after taking office that he would abandon his new House seat to challenge U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Dotter felt betrayed.
“I wish it would not have happened,” the retired Los Angeles aerospace executive says. “I told him, ‘It looks to me like you’ve become one of them.’ . . . The whole point of the campaign was that he would be a different type of representative.”
Huffington is certainly a different type of candidate. Most statewide hopefuls spend years building a hometown base to use as a springboard, but Huffington’s brief political tenure has left him a controversial subject in his 22nd Congressional District, which stretches along the Central Coast from Santa Barbara to San Simeon.
Some, like Dotter, are disappointed that he did not wait longer before pursuing other ambitions. Others are still angry at Huffington for his $5-million campaign that unseated Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino, a Republican who represented the area for more than 30 years.
The Santa Barbara Independent newspaper has picked up on the Republican rancor in a column called the Angry Poodle Barbecue. The column’s irreverent author includes a regular “Huff Watch” with a front-page logo. And he refers to Huffington as the area’s “alleged congressman.”
Some of Huffington’s sharpest critics have even threatened to organize a “Republicans for Feinstein” committee if he wins the primary. Barney Klinger, a conservative activist who has been host to two Republican Presidents at his Santa Barbara estate, pledged to raise at least $100,000 to “guarantee that we will deliver his congressional district for Dianne Feinstein.”
Huffington and many GOP leaders downplay the controversy, and most party officials continue to support the incumbent congressman, whom many expect to win the Republican Senate nomination June 7. But they acknowledge that he remains a delicate subject for the local party.
“I could tell you everything is hunky-dory, but there is a division left and it is pretty bitter,” said Boyd Larson, chairman of the Santa Barbara Republican Party. “There’s a lot of downright hate. . . . I’ve been trying (to bring the sides together) and I haven’t had much luck. It’s beginning to take its toll.”
In a close primary battle between two leading Republicans seeking Huffington’s House seat, both candidates have kept a distance from their party’s incumbent. “I think any candidate, in my mind, would want to stay clear of that particular controversy, especially before the primary,” Larson said.
One of the congressional candidates, Santa Barbara County Supervisor Mike Stoker, has instead referred to himself as a Lagomarsino-style candidate. And his rival, state Assemblywoman Andrea Seastrand (R-Pismo Beach), said she has heard from campaigning door to door that Republican voters are still divided over Huffington.
“I just hear that people are scratching their heads about why he said he was going to be their congressman and as soon as he gets in office, he runs for the Senate,” said Steve Decker, a Santa Barbara Republican candidate for state Senate.
Huffington, 46, said he believes the complaints are limited to a small but vocal core of activists and that the overwhelming majority of voters support his Senate campaign. He also contends that most of his critics are Republicans still loyal to Lagomarsino, who has made no secret of his bitterness.
“Frankly, most people are apolitical,” Huffington said in an interview. “The majority of people back in the district, I’m sure, don’t have a problem with my running.”
The 22nd Congressional District is one of those politically quixotic parts of California where voters usually elect Republicans and Democrats on the same ballot and where Ross Perot’s presidential campaign had one of its best showings.
Huffington actually lost Santa Barbara County to Lagomarsino in the 1992 primary, but he won the race by taking San Luis Obispo County, an area that was added to the district during reapportionment.
It is difficult to gauge the extent of the Huffington controversy among the district’s voters because there have not been any recent elections or polls. Huffington said he bases his judgment by the reception he gets on visits.
Whatever the perception is, Huffington’s unsettled home turf is certain to be an issue in the Senate race. Kam Kuwata, Feinstein’s campaign manager, said: “We’re delighted that the people who have followed his record the closest, the people who know him best, are the people who are going to quite vocally oppose him.”
Feinstein knows well about the scrutiny given to a statewide candidate’s home turf. In her unsuccessful 1990 campaign for governor, she boasted in television commercials about her success in lowering crime rates while she was mayor of San Francisco. At the same time, Republican Pete Wilson’s commercials attacked her for raising the city’s taxes.
Former Rep. William E. Dannemeyer, Huffington’s chief rival in the Republican Senate primary, has pointed to his lopsided elections in conservative Orange County--75% support in 1986 and 1988--as proof of the resonance in his message.
Huffington’s district is getting plenty of scrutiny from reporters seeking to learn more about California’s most unknown major candidate. But it is not an issue many local Republicans want to talk about, especially the candidates on the ballot in Santa Barbara this year.
Steve MacElvaine, a candidate for state Senate, recently joked to a Republican club dinner that he was glad to see Huffington and Lagomarsino supporters finally sitting in the same room together.
Meanwhile, Stoker, one of the Republicans seeking Huffington’s seat, admits he has developed a short fuse when he is asked about the incumbent. Stoker is endorsed by Lagomarsino and he declined to say whether he would support Huffington against Feinstein in the general election. But he is trying to unite the party behind his campaign and he is losing patience talking about the past.
“Read my lips. I don’t think of Mike Huffington,” he said. “If I’m going to spend my time thinking about what Mike Huffington’s image is in the district, I’m going to lose a congressional race.”