When Democrat Loretta Sanchez launched her grass-roots campaign last November to make a grab for Robert K. Dornan’s congressional seat, she was widely ignored by the party establishment.
But the 36-year-old public finance specialist made a pointed and relentless push for victory, quietly recruiting her six siblings to walk precincts, dispatching her mother to local senior citizen centers and appealing to women and Latino voters with targeted mail.
Her calculations paid off in Tuesday’s primary, when she edged out two rivals who had received broad backing and were expected to overwhelm her.
“I think I understand the district a lot better than most people,” said an ebullient Sanchez. “When you learn people’s values because they’re your values, you’re much better able to understand what problems they’re facing, what needs to be done, what appeals to them.”
Sanchez’s surprise triumph has left analysts somewhat stunned, and her win promises a lively and unprecedented race against the fiery nine-term incumbent who has yet to abandon his low-fuel race for the presidency.
“It’s a different beast,” said Democratic analyst George Urch. “Dornan has never really run against a female Democrat. She has deep roots in Anaheim. She’s a woman and she’s Latino, and in a crowded field, I think she managed to pull that block of votes together.”
Dornan (R-Garden Grove) has retained his grasp on the 46th Congressional District for years, frustrating Democratic attempts to gain control of one of the county’s only Democratic-majority districts.
The surprise element of a Latina businesswoman who stresses jobs, education and financial security for the elderly may alter the formula, analysts said.
“I think that Dornan is so off on the presidential thing that he really hasn’t focused on this,” Urch said. “He thinks this district is his and he’s got a hard lock on it. But he has no money. He still hasn’t qualified for matching funds. He’s looking very Don Quixote-like.
“A feisty woman like Loretta is going to present a lot of headaches for him. The question is: Can Loretta raise the money?”
Dornan and his staff could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Other Republicans said Dornan would easily beat his new contender.
“Just from looking at past history, I don’t think Bob Dornan has any problem at all, that he will get reelected,” said Jo Ellen Allen, first vice chair for the Orange County Republican Party. “Bob is also a very smart public official, and you never take any election for granted. He’s a hard campaigner. He puts his whole heart into everything.”
Other analysts said it will prove difficult for Sanchez to corral the votes for a general-election victory unless the state Democratic Party commits to serious battle in the district.
“Certainly, Dornan is in a position of strength running against someone who received less than the majority of the Democratic vote and will have low name recognition in the district,” said UC Irvine professor Mark Baldassare, who tracks political trends.
“The strategies used to win the primary race would have to be expanded upon to win a majority of the voters in the fall election, where you may have 70% to 75% of eligible voters voting.”
Sanchez received 35% of the vote, compared with 29% for Michael P. Farber--who lost a bitter campaign against Dornan two years ago--and 27% for James Prince, the candidate heavily backed by the Democratic Party of Orange County. Robert J. Brennan, a heavy-equipment repairman, garnered 9% of the vote.
Sanchez prevailed despite the fact that her opponents outspent her. By March 6, Sanchez had spent $73,000, while Farber had spent $468,000 and Prince had spent $203,000, according to federal election reports.
Sanchez lost a bid for an Anaheim City Council seat in 1994 but this time dropped her married name of Sanchez Brixey and used only Sanchez. She said Brixey is a “difficult” name for the ballot. Others suggested that using Sanchez may have helped the candidate win Latino votes in the district.
She appealed to voters by stressing her local ties: One mailer showed her next to an Anaheim squad car at age 10, elected “police chief for the day” after submitting a winning essay on community policing.
Sanchez earned a bachelor’s degree at Chapman University and a master’s in business administration at the American University in Washington. She worked as a finance manager for the Orange County Transportation Authority before launching her own business--Amiga Advisors--in 1992, offering financial advice to public agencies.
Sanchez said her work at OCTA gave her inside knowledge of “what a policymaker’s role is.” She also said she believes she can extend her appeal to Republican voters, particularly women. Sanchez was a registered Republican before switching parties in 1992.
“I saw that what was driving the Republican Party was a very extreme agenda to the right--that it wasn’t inclusive,” she said. “I don’t believe the majority of people in our district--whether they’re Republicans or Democrats--are that polarized in either direction. I just didn’t see room, and Dornan happens to spearhead that polarization to the right.”
Farber, who felt Dornan’s sting in 1994 when he lost his bid for the seat by more than 20%, said that he plans to back Sanchez.
“We’re going to do whatever we can to help her,” Farber said. “I hope she can pull the pieces together and take a chunk out of this guy.”
Added Mike Kaspar, Farber’s campaign manager:
“She doesn’t have the baggage that Mike would have had because he lost in ’94. She has emerged as a very viable candidate. I wouldn’t write her off.”