Dornan Basks in Improbable Comeback


Robert K. Dornan, risen from the political dead, took the podium at a Newport Beach hotel late Tuesday night and bathed in the thundering cheers of the people who made him the Republican nominee for the House seat he unexpectedly lost two years ago.

He quoted Teddy Roosevelt. He quoted Isaiah. He bashed incumbent Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove). This was his moment. Somebody gave him a little nudge, suggesting maybe that it was time to relinquish the mike.

“No,” he barked. “I have earned this.”

The fiery conservative who had represented the 46th District for 12 years captured 49% of the GOP vote in Tuesday’s primary, enough to blow past two strong rivals. He did it without his usual bountiful stash of campaign money, without the endorsement of his ex-good friends in the House, without the backing of most of his party’s establishment.


The question now is, can he do it in November?

“The old loyal conservative core was there for Bob Dornan in the primary, but he’s going to need a lot more than that in the general,” said Washington political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. “Dornan’s nomination gives Sanchez the ticket she needs to make sure there is a good Hispanic turnout in the district.”

If the pundits are right, Sanchez may have the most cause to celebrate Dornan’s nomination in a district where a quarter of registered voters are Latinos, a constituency that he alienated in a two-year crusade to try to prove that she stole the 1996 election with votes from noncitizens.

“He has a base and we have a base,” said Sanchez chief of staff Steve Jost. “And our base is larger and more loyal than his.”

In another nationally watched primary, Republican Rep. Jay Kim’s historic career as the first Korean American elected to Congress--not to mention the first House member ever sentenced to wear an electronic surveillance bracelet--ended in disgrace when voters in his Diamond Bar-based district gave the GOP nomination to Assemblyman Gary Miller.

Miller’s jubilant celebration at the Pomona Fairplex on Tuesday night was tempered by the harsh business of unseating a Republican incumbent--even one convicted of misdemeanor campaign finance violations. “This is not a pleasant day, in some ways,” said Forest Tennant, a prominent GOP activist from West Covina.

Kim’s three-term House tenure ended inauspiciously late Tuesday when he approved a concession statement drafted by his staff and went to bed in his Washington-area home. (Under the sentence that he received earlier this year, he has been confined to commuting between there and Capitol Hill the last few months.)

“Although I’m disappointed, I respect their choice,” he wrote. “That’s all I ever asked for.”

Kim was California’s only House incumbent unseated in the primary. Miller will be heavily favored to win the decidedly Republican 41st District over Democratic nominee Eileen R. Ansari.

All told, California will see five new members join its 52-seat House delegation next year. One of them probably will be Assemblywoman Grace Napolitano, who apparently won the Democratic nomination in eastern Los Angeles County’s 34th District in a close race with Jamie Casso, son-in-law of and chief of staff for retiring Rep. Esteban Torres (D-Pico Rivera).

On Wednesday, Napolitano led by 557 votes out of more than 45,000 cast in the Democratic race. Casso’s campaign was hoping that 5,000 to 7,000 absentee ballots might still tip the election its way. But Napolitano already was planning ahead, placing a call to House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) to discuss possible committee assignments.

Although most of the state’s House races will be foregone conclusions in November, a lively contest was shaping up in the South Bay for the 36th District seat left open by Democratic incumbent Jane Harman’s run for governor.

Except for Harman, the district traditionally has had a GOP tilt, and Assemblyman Steven T. Kuykendall won the Republican nomination in a relatively close race with Los Angeles City Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr. and Susan Brooks.

Democrats had hoped that the win would go to Brooks, who lost twice before to Harman and whose conservative views and sometimes negative campaign style have made her a hard sell for the district’s swing voters. Instead, Kuykendall, a moderate ex-Marine, will face Janice Hahn, sister of Los Angeles City Atty. James K. Hahn, in a race that is considered a tossup.

On election night, the primary post-mortem centered on Brooks’ aggressive campaigning, which her opponents said ranged from “visceral” to “slash and kill.”

Renee Orefice, Kuykendall’s campaign consultant, said Brooks’ attack campaign “backfired big time. Voters are tired of it. She never gave them a reason to vote for her.”

Brooks, for her part, delighted in watching Harman lose the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. At the El Segundo golf course clubhouse where she spent Tuesday night awaiting results, Brooks led supporters in a bye-bye wave when Harman appeared on television. “Are we all waving goodbye to Jane?” she yelled to the crowd, later calling it the “highlight of the evening.”

In Northern California, businessman Doug Ose won a bitter battle for the GOP nomination over conservative Assemblywoman Barbara Alby in the Sacramento-area 3rd District, left open by the retirement of Democratic Rep. Vic Fazio.

The increasingly conservative district has leaned Republican in recent years and analysts say that attorney Sandie Dunn--who won the Democratic nod--will have a hard time holding the seat for her party.

The prospect of Kuykendall and Ose capturing districts now held by Democrats makes the national crusade by Democrats to take control of the House all the harder, analysts say.

Times staff writers Alan Abrahamson, Jean Merl and Nicholas Riccardi and correspondent Joe Mozingo contributed to this story.