CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS : CONGRESS : Republicans See Chance for Gains in the House

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the California economy remaining stagnant and the Clinton White House careening from accomplishment to controversy, state Republicans hope to use the June 7 primary as the steppingstone to capturing three to five House seats in November.

The GOP plans to hammer away at candidate Clinton's vanished promise of a middle-class tax cut, continuing problems over illegal immigration and queasiness over health care reform. It sees rich opportunities in the Clinton tax hike and coolly calculates the potential damage from the Whitewater investigation and a sexual harassment suit filed against the President.

And they have a great ally in history.

The President's party has lost seats in the House of Representatives in every midterm election since World War II, and the California delegation has mirrored the national trend. Since 1974, only in President Reagan's 1986 midterm election were state Republicans able to stave off losses.

"Clinton is undoubtedly on a four-year schedule to strengthen his own chances for reelection," says Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), a representative to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which raises funds for party candidates. "(But) at midterm, he's extremely vulnerable. The changing promises are still fresh in the memory, and the abrogation of them is fresher still."

Cox predicts at least three additional Republican faces in the sprawling 52-member California delegation, which would reduce the Democratic majority to a thin 27-to-25 edge. "But it's not at all unlikely that we could gain five," he said.

Democrats hope to blunt that strategy by keeping House races focused on individual district issues and away from the President's wobbly popularity.

Even so, Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said as many as 25 Democratic seats could be lost nationwide--a number some observers view as a knowing exaggeration.

"Clinton is still relatively popular in California," said Fazio. "He has maintained that by constant emphasis on issues of importance (to the state). But in no way will he be a litmus test. We won't be on the defensive. We could pick up several seats, we could lose a couple."

A swing factor that could aid both parties during the election season is the vigorous gubernatorial campaign among Gov. Pete Wilson and Democrats Kathleen Brown, John Garamendi and Tom Hayden.

Two years ago, Republicans felt that the early Bush abandonment of California left their candidates twisting in the wind. Now, that thundering silence has been replaced by the pugnacious Wilson's bristling lectures on GOP campaign themes.

Democrats, on the other hand, hope that the interest stirred up by the governor's race will translate into increased registration and voter turnout.

The other high-profile statewide race belongs to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is seeking her first six-year term. Having lost to Wilson in the 1990 governor's contest, Feinstein two years later knocked off John Seymour, whom Wilson had appointed to fill his shoes.

Freshman Rep. Michael Huffington of Santa Barbara, who is using his vast personal wealth to make a move on the Senate, will almost certainly be her Republican foe.

Two veteran members of the state congressional delegation, Reps. Don Edwards (D-San Jose) and Al McCandless (R-La Quinta), have announced their retirement. Huffington's is the third open seat. The other 49 members of the California House delegation, the largest in U.S. history, are up for reelection.

Two years ago redistricting, retirements and virulent anti-incumbent sentiment created a record 15 open seats, and California sent 17 newcomers to Congress. But this year, despite the usual midterm jitters, most California incumbents appear to have free passes punched through to November. Twenty-four face no primary opponents from within their party.

But two freshman members face perilous primaries. Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Riverside) is ensnared in a sex scandal, and Rep. Dan Hamburg (D-Ukiah) faces a tough primary challenge from former Rep. Doug Bosco, who represented the district for eight years.

Looking forward to the November general election, the number of vulnerable incumbents increases.

Top Democratic targets are Calvert, should he survive the primary, and Reps. John T. Doolittle of Rocklin and Richard W. Pombo of Tracy.

Calvert won one of the closest elections in the country two years ago, sneaking past Democrat Mark Takano by a mere 519 votes. Community college trustee Takano is again favored to win his party's nomination, and Calvert's Republican challenger, UC Riverside professor Joseph Khoury, is expected to run a stronger campaign this time around. But most damaging is Calvert's admission--after months of denial--that he had sex in his car last November with a woman who police say is a known prostitute.

This daunting combination of political hurdles led Roll Call, an insider Capitol Hill newspaper, to rate Calvert last week as the most vulnerable incumbent in the country.

Doolittle is one of those Republicans that Democrats love to hate. His 4th District, covering Sierra peaks and valley lowlands, is one of the most Republican in Northern California, but its voters have a strong independent streak that Democrats hope to exploit by portraying Doolittle as an extreme right-winger.

The conservative Pombo, a freshman who pulled off two upsets to reach Washington, will almost certainly face Democrat Randy Perry, a police officer whose strong crime views are expected to lure some of the moderate voters in the Sacramento Valley district.

Democratic strategists are also eyeing the seats left vacant by McCandless and Huffington, but both are considered more natural Republican territory.

Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale), an 11-term veteran who received a scare in 1992 from Democrat Doug Kahn, is another tempting target. Probably marching in his last campaign, Moorhead should be able to raise plenty of money as ranking Republican member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. But businessman Kahn, who took 39% of the 1992 vote, vows to wage a better-financed operation and pull off an upset.

Another potential trouble spot for Republicans is in the nominally safe 41st District covering parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, where former Diamond Bar Mayor Jay Kim faces strong opposition within his own party. Kim, the first Korean American elected to Congress, faces scrutiny from the Federal Election Commission, a grand jury and the FBI for alleged campaign financing irregularities. His four GOP challengers should dilute the vote sufficiently to ensure him a primary victory, but the outcome of the various investigations could quickly unravel this scenario.

The Democrats' superiority in the state delegation forces them to defend more seats--some of which they were lucky to win in 1992--and leaves several incumbents in jeopardy.

"The Cook Political Report," a respected monthly newsletter, argued that the Democrats might have reached their high-water mark in California two years ago.

"Bill Clinton's strength, combined with the weaknesses of George Bush and the economy, helped install a number of Democratic House candidates in what are generally Republican districts," the April report said.

Two of the GOP's top targets are Reps. Jane Harman of Marina del Rey and Lynn Schenk of San Diego. Both Democrats represent coastal districts with slight Republican registration advantages--and unpredictable voters.

Harman will again be able to dip into considerable personal wealth to bolster her war chest but will probably face a more moderate, pro-abortion rights Republican challenger in November.

Schenk, a onetime aide to former Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., may have an easier time. Many Republicans in the district vote for environmentalist Democrats, as do many of the region's large independent block.

In California's 1st District, taking in most of California's North Coast, freshman Hamburg finds himself in the rare position of being opposed by two former members of Congress. One, Republican Frank Riggs, he defeated two years ago; the other, Democrat Bosco, represented the district before being upended by Riggs.

This odd triangle of combatants exposes some unpleasant Democratic timber politics. Bosco will try to paint Hamburg as a "tree-hugger," while Hamburg will point out Bosco's ties to lumber interests.

Three veterans also must be considered vulnerable.

Topping virtually every list of endangered Democrats is Rep. Richard Lehman of North Fork. He was an easy winner in the 1980s, but redistricting transformed his 19th District into white-knuckle territory. He nearly lost in 1992 to 28-year-old businessman Tal Cloud and may take the heat for voter anger at Clinton--even though Lehman voted against the President's budget plan.

Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson of Woodland Hills came through with flying colors two years ago, despite fears that redistricting had forced him into a tossup district north of his formerly safe liberal base. But if wealthy businessman Richard Sybert, Wilson's former director of planning and research, wins the Republican primary, Beilenson's chances take a sudden dip, many observers say.

Republicans have been hounding Rep. George E. Brown Jr. for more than a decade. A liberal Democrat in an increasingly conservative San Bernardino-area district, Brown got by with 51% of the vote in 1992, and the GOP is ready for another battle.

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