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Failed Recall Called a Warning : Politics: Democrats say voters won’t accept use of process for partisan causes after Assemblyman Machado retains office.

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Perhaps they were overconfident. After all, it was easy as pie to recall Assemblyman Paul Horcher, so the thought of picking off another enemy lawmaker seemed like no big deal.

But in the end, things did not work out so well for the Republicans. On Tuesday, Democratic Assemblyman Michael J. Machado easily defeated a GOP effort to evict him from office. By a margin of nearly 2 to 1, voters rejected an invitation to recall the Stockton-area lawmaker for supporting a fellow Democrat--Willie Brown--for Speaker this year.

In the aftermath Wednesday, Democrats were gloating. It was a big win, and--while costing more than $800,000--it broadcast a warning about the perils of using the recall as a partisan political tool.

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“This fight was about internal politics--nothing more--and the voters clearly recognized that,” said Steve Smith, political director of the state Democratic Party. “I think we all hope this recall business stops here.”

Republicans were not talking much. The newly elected Assembly Republican leader, Curt Pringle of Garden Grove, did not return calls from The Times. Nor did state Sen. Rob Hurtt (R-Garden Grove), who spent more than $32,000 to try to sink Machado as part of a broader effort to increase GOP numbers in the Legislature.

One Republican who was giving interviews was the recall’s most vocal champion, Assemblyman Larry Bowler of Elk Grove. He called the campaign a noble cause that was doomed only by the bigger bucks amassed by Democrats. As of the last filing deadline, pro-recall forces had raised about $170,000 while Machado’s campaign team had collected $845,000.

“He who spends most wins the election,” said Bowler. “But I’m not discouraged. We have right on our side. We fought a good fight, and we’ll fight it again if we have to.”

That may come sooner rather than later. The Republicans’ newest recall target is Assembly Speaker Doris Allen (R-Cypress), who is loathed by many in the GOP because she seized power this year in a deal with Democrats.

On Wednesday, Allen said she hoped that Machado’s recall triumph would aid her cause. Calling the effort against Machado “pernicious,” she said recalls were not intended as a “campaign tool for machine politics.”

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“I think the recall is there as a protection for the voters in the case of real malfeasance in office--something that will hurt the voters if that individual were to stay for the remainder of his term,” Allen said. Machado’s alleged sin did not meet that test and neither did hers, Allen said.

In Orange County, architects of the effort to recall the Speaker disagreed.

“These are two very different recalls,” said Jeff Flint, manager of the anti-Allen campaign. “I think it was maybe a tough sell to recall a Democrat for supporting a Democrat for Speaker. With Doris Allen, it’s pretty clear that voters down here feel she sold out the Republican Party.”

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Machado, 47, was elected in November, winning by only 1,400 votes. A cherry and tomato farmer from the town of Linden, he had scarcely located the Capitol building bathrooms before Republicans--viewing him as vulnerable--declared their intent to recall him.

Bowler argued that Machado betrayed his constituents by voting for Brown for Speaker after allegedly suggesting that he would not. Machado denied that he ever promised not to support Brown.

Machado supporters said the Brown issue was a mask for other motives, such as Hurtt’s attempt to use the recall to unseat lawmakers simply because they are Democrats. In addition, recall critics said Bowler took on Machado merely to enhance his public profile for a future state Senate run.

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The final, unofficial results from Tuesday’s election showed voters rejecting the recall 63% to 37%--18,706 votes for the recall, 31,780 opposed.

The result left Republicans with a 40-39 edge in the Assembly with one vacancy. That vacancy will be filled in a special election next month in Orange County, where the likely winner will be a Republican.

As he received congratulations from lawmakers in the capital Wednesday, Machado said he was gratified by the “great vote of confidence” he believes was embodied by his victory margin.

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“The voters realized this recall was about people on the fringe of the Republican Party imposing their politics on them, and they said they didn’t like it,” Machado said. “I would hope that everyone will learn from this and realize it’s time to stop game playing and get down to the business of this great state.”

And how was he celebrating his big win? By unpacking boxes and hanging plaques and pictures on the wall of his Capitol office.

“Call us superstitious,” he said. “We decided not to decorate until this was all over.”

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