Republican Rep. Jay Kim--already sentenced by the courts to wear an electronic surveillance bracelet for campaign finance fraud--was struggling Tuesday night to avoid the ultimate political punishment from voters in his Diamond Bar district.
Early scattered returns spelled possible trouble for Kim--Diamond Bar Assemblyman Gary Miller was leading in the race for the Republican nomination. Orange County prosecutor Pete Pierce also was in the GOP race. Miller and Pierce both argued that the party was in danger of losing the rock-solid Republican district if Kim, convicted of misdemeanor fund-raising violations, were the nominee.
Elsewhere in California's congressional races, former Republican Rep. Robert K. Dornan hoped to take the first step toward resurrecting his political career by winning the GOP nomination for the Garden Grove seat he lost to Democrat Rep. Loretta Sanchez in an embarrassing upset two years ago.
Dornan took an early lead as he sought to fend off attorney Lisa Hughes, who argued that she would be the stronger GOP candidate against Sanchez in November. Superior Court Judge Jim Gray also was seeking the Republican nomination.
Despite an eclectic group of challengers, most California House incumbents appeared safely positioned to keep their jobs. But open seats in the South Bay, East Los Angeles and in two Northern California districts guarantee that California will send at least four freshmen to Washington in November.
In the South Bay, where incumbent Democrat Jane Harman gave up her seat to run for governor, state Assemblyman Steven T. Kuykendall took an early lead in a three-way Republican primary that also featured businesswoman Susan Brooks and Los Angeles City Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr.
Brooks, who lost two close races to Harman, benefited from district-wide name recognition. But Kuykendall and Svorinich argued that fresh blood was needed to win the seat for the GOP.
In East Los Angeles, the Democratic winner of the primary will almost certainly succeed veteran Rep. Esteban Edward Torres, a Democrat who is retiring. Early returns showed that Jamie Casso--Torres' son-in-law, chief of staff and chosen successor--was in a tight race with three-term Assemblywoman Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk).
For political observers both in and out of California, Kim's race was one of the most fascinating, given the unprecedented circumstance of a seated congressman forbidden by court order to set foot in his district in the weeks before an election.
While Miller and Pierce waged aggressive campaigns to unseat Kim, Diamond Bar City Councilwoman Eileen R. Ansari was unopposed for the Democratic nomination.
At Kim's Upland campaign office Tuesday, the mood was subdued. Press releases were going into the shredder, leaflets were in garbage bags and no one knew where or whether the election night party would be held.
"It's kind of hard without the congressman," one aide said glumly.
Dornan's bid in the Orange County district he had represented since the mid-1980s also captured national attention. All but abandoned by the GOP establishment, he was banking on his strong conservative credentials to again resonate with voters.
Sanchez defeated Dornan by a mere 984 votes in one of the most shocking upsets of 1996. Dornan spent much of the past two years unsuccessfully contesting the election, claiming that noncitizens had voted illegally and put Sanchez over the top. After a lengthy investigation, Congress earlier this year let the election stand.
A political saga of another sort was playing out in Northern California, where two open seats are expected to change hands in November.
In early returns, businessman Doug Ose led in a fierce battle against Republican state Assemblywoman Barbara Alby for the nomination in an increasingly conservative Sacramento-area district left open by veteran Democratic Rep. Vic Fazio, who is retiring. On the Democrats' side, attorney Sandie Dunn was the front-runner in the primary in what will be a battle royal for her party to hold the seat in November.
The other potential flip-flop involves the state's northernmost district, which came open when Republican Rep. Frank Riggs launched a run for the U.S. Senate that he quickly aborted. State Sen. Mike Thompson appeared headed for the Democratic nomination, with unopposed Napa County Supervisor Mark Luce his Republican rival in November. Thompson will be favored in the fall race.
Tuesday's primary winnowed the field to two major party candidates for each of California's 52 House seats. The delegation now has 29 Democrats and 23 Republicans, and each party is hoping to pick up seats in November as part of a larger battle for control of the House, where the GOP has a slim 11-vote margin.
In other races, widowed Reps. Lois Capps (D-Santa Barbara) and Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs) have already filled their husbands' unexpired terms and were shoo-ins for their respective party nominations. And they were expected to face the same foes they beat in the special elections this year.
Actor Ralph Waite, formerly of "The Waltons," was the Democratic favorite to challenge Bono in what will be a decidedly uphill race for him in November. Conservative Republican state Assemblyman Tom J. Bordonaro Jr. was leading physician James Harrison to face Capps.
In San Diego, Councilwoman Christine Kehoe--one of four openly lesbian House candidates nationwide, was the sole Democrat running to take on GOP incumbent Brian Bilbray. They will face off in a contest to represent the fiscally conservative, socially moderate district that has elected representatives from both parties in recent years.