Unseating a congressional incumbent is a difficult task. Unseating an incumbent backed by the county's core conservative power brokers is an even more daunting challenge, one that two candidates have taken on in the March 26 Republican primary for the 46th District.
While Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) has spent most of his time in what political observers consider a purely rhetorical run for the White House, his challengers have been talking about crime in the streets of Santa Ana and the steady influx of illegal immigrants into the county and state.
"He was apparently concerned about the safety of the people in Bosnia, but has he been in Santa Ana? Has he driven around at night?" asked challenger Felix Rocha Jr., 50, an Orange County Department of Education board member who quit his job as an undercover agent for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to run for Dornan's seat. Rocha is also running for reelection to the county school board, but said he is soliciting no funds for that race.
"It's unconscionable that Dornan takes off and goes to Bosnia to see if the Bosnians are safe at night. The crime and violence that affects the daily lives of the people in the 46th District is alarming."
The 63-year-old congressman traveled to Bosnia last month with House Speaker Newt Gingrich after three previous attempts were blocked by the U.S. State Department. But he was back in town Friday to hold a congressional subcommittee hearing in Santa Ana City Council Chambers on illegal immigration and border security.
Dornan could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon, but chief of staff Paul Mero said the challengers are making a fundamental mistake about the role of a federal lawmaker.
"What many of his opponents don't seem to understand is that a congressman's business is federal," Mero said. "He goes to work in Washington, D.C. Many of the issues that his opponents are talking about are local issues. They are issues that the local City Council, the school board or the state government needs to address."
Dornan's focus on presidential politics also has drawn fire from Republican challenger Katherine H. Smith, who said his constituents feel ignored.
"The people of this district are irate over this," Smith said. "He's just staying in [the presidential primary] to get federal matching funds that come from the pockets of the hard-working residents of this county."
Dornan is "two states shy" of qualifying for federal matching funds, according to Mero.
"This does not come out of taxpayers' pockets," he said. "It's a voluntary checkoff [on income tax forms]. If you don't want your money to go to that, then it doesn't."
In this central Orange County congressional district, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 6% margin, conservative leaders say they owe Dornan their loyalty for unseating five-term incumbent Democratic Rep. Jerry Patterson in 1984.
That election was a political comeback for the former talk-show host, who had served from 1976 to 1982 as a Santa Monica-area congressman. After an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate, Dornan was recruited by GOP leaders for the contest and subsequently moved to Orange County.
"Bob came in a long time ago and won this seat when this was a hotly contested race with the Democrats," said Buck Johns, one of the county's most influential Republican fund-raisers. "Those of us in the Republican Party are very appreciative of that, and we've got long memories."
But Smith argues that the rank-and-file voters she encounters during her doorbell-ringing excursions around the district are fed up with politics as usual.
"People want change; they're crying for change and the party is not responding," Smith said. "I am a fourth-generation Republican. I worked for Barry Goldwater in 1963 and 1964. The reason I am doing this is because there has been no one for me to vote for in this district."
And Smith is doing it mostly with her own money. She says she's willing to spend up to $100,000 on her campaign, which is headquartered in her west Anaheim home. Smith's latest campaign finance statement shows that she has raised $52,950 and spent $36,709 so far.
Rocha's campaign headquarters is outside his Fountain Valley home, in the garage. He's raised less than $5,000, the minimum amount required for filing campaign finance reports.
"I realize that my chances are slim and none," Rocha said, "but I'm an everyday type of person. When I see something that isn't right, I want to try and fix it."
Dornan reported $22,106 cash on hand for the period ending Jan. 1.
"He hasn't done any congressional fund-raising so far because he was focused on the presidential race," Mero said, noting that Dornan remains in the California presidential primary, also on March 26.
Dornan has not faced a congressional primary challenge since his 1992 tussle with former county Superior Court Judge Judith M. Ryan, considered a moderate Republican. He remained uncharacteristically above the fray during the June 1994 primary, while seven Democrats clamored for the right to take him on.
In the November election that year, Dornan was reelected with only a 9% margin of victory over Democrat Robert John Banuelos, a relatively unknown political contender.
About half the 571,000 residents in Dornan's central Orange County congressional district live in Santa Ana, the county seat. The 46th District, which also includes most of Garden Grove and Anaheim, is considered the least Republican part of the county.
Whoever captures the Republican nomination will face the winner of a four-way contest in progress for the Democratic nomination, along with candidates from the Libertarian, Natural Law and Reform parties.
While the mood of the average Republican on the street may be hard to gauge, county conservative leaders say they see no reason to jeopardize the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives with an untested candidate.
"I don't think any of us who have labored long and hard in the vineyard here want to put this new majority we have in Congress at risk," said Doy Henley, board chairman and past president of the conservative Lincoln Club of Orange County. "We don't think that it's useful to worry too much about this Republican or that Republican. Let's keep the one we've got who has the best chance to be elected."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Duo Dueling Dornan
Two Republican challengers are seeking to unseat veteran Rep. Robert K. Dornan of Garden Grove in the 46th District GOP primary. Dornan's 18 years in Washington are enough, both challengers contend.
Robert K. Dornan
Government positions: Member, National Security Committee; chairman, subcommittee on military personnel; member, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence; chairman, subcommittee on tactical and technical intelligence
Education: Attended Loyola University
Family: Married; five children, 10 grandchildren
Funds raised: $22,106
Endorsements: National Republican Committee; National Republican Congressional Committee; all Republican members of the California congressional delegation; United States Chamber of Commerce
ON THE ISSUES
Do you support a congressional welfare reform proposal that would deny most social services to immigrants who enter the country illegally? Believes illegal immigrants are a strain on the economy and a burden on California taxpayers, but his emphasis is on keeping them from entering the country. He does not support denying emergency medical services to illegal immigrants.
Do you favor any proposals for changing the tax code, perhaps through either a flat tax that would eliminate all exemptions or other changes that might alter the way capital gains or inheritances are taxed? Supports a flat tax with deductions for home mortgage and charitable contributions as a transition to a national sales tax. He advocates the repeal of all income, corporate and inheritance taxes and the abolition of the Internal Revenue Service.
Do you agree or disagree with the position of GOP leaders who have refused to compromise in budget negotiations with President Clinton, holding firm to a belief that a balanced budget is of paramount importance? Supports tough stance taken by congressional Republicans on federal budget negotiations to stop what he believes is the impending bankruptcy of the federal government. Favors significant cuts in federal spending and taxes.
Felix Rocha Jr.
Occupation: Retired special agent for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service
Government positions: Board member, Orange County Department of Education
Education: Attended San Antonio Junior College (Texas); Miramar College (Vista); and Golden West College
Family: Married; one teenager and two grown children
Funds raised: Reports raising less than $5,000; not required to file a campaign finance statement unless $5,000 is gathered.
Endorsements: Orange County Chapter of Retired INS Officers; the United Lumbee Indian Nation, Hawk Clan
ON THE ISSUES
Benefits for illegal immigrants: "Illegal aliens do not deserve any kind of services from the federal, state or local governments. The federal government should return the responsibility of providing welfare to every individual state. People who are entitled to receive welfare should be on that sort of subsistence for no more than six months."
Tax reform: "I'm not in favor of the current system. I would hope an alternative system would be something along the line of a consumption tax. I am not in favor of a flat tax because it taxes everybody at the same rate."
Balanced budget: "I agree that a balanced budget is important, but not over the daily lives of citizens of this country. Of paramount concern to the residents of Orange County is the lack of jobs, the uncertain financial times, crime and violence, illegal immigration and an overall lack of trust in government itself."
Katherine H. Smith
Occupation: Businesswoman; former teacher
Government positions: None
Education: Attended Santa Rosa Junior College; California teaching credential
Family: Married; two grown sons
Funds raised: $52,950
Endorsements: Economist Milton Friedman; former INS Commissioner Gene McNary; Orange County Labor Council of the AFL-CIO; State Federation of Labor; Republicans for Choice
ON THE ISSUES
Benefits for illegal immigrants: "The people of this country and this state and this particular congressional district are overwhelmingly devastated financially because of the omnipresent problems of this country becoming a magnet for a sea of human misery that has no end. We are going to have to put a stop to all illegal immigration because the backs of the taxpayers are being broken."
Tax reform: "I am absolutely against a flat tax. I consider the IRS a form of terrorism in this country. A consumption tax would be fair and equitable, easy to administer and the best choice.
Balanced budget: "The greatest threat to the unborn of this nation is not abortion, it's the $5-trillion national debt. It is a heinous legacy to put on children who are not even conceived yet. The Republicans and Democrats who are holding firm for a balanced budget are correct in seeking fiscal responsibility."
Source: Individual candidates; Researched by RUSS LOAR / For The Times
Los Angeles Times
Profiles of the four Democrats competing to challenge the Republican victor.