Lois Capps opened a substantial, steady lead Tuesday night in the bitterly fought House race on California's Central Coast, raising Democratic hopes of gaining a leg up on efforts to win back control of Congress in November.
With just over half the precincts reporting, Democrat Capps was winning 55% of the vote to 43.5% for Republican Tom Bordonaro. A third candidate, Libertarian Robert Bakhaus, had less than 1.5%.
"It shows Democrats have a winning message," said state party Chairman Art Torres, as early returns showed Capps pulling ahead.
Capps and Bordonaro were vying to fill out the term of Walter Capps, a freshman Democrat who died of a heart attack in October after just 10 months in office. The winner will seek a full two-year term in November, in a possible reprise of Tuesday's match-up. Both candidates have filed papers to compete in their respective party primaries in June.
The unusually high voter turnout Tuesday--forecasts were in the 40% to 50% range--reflected the extraordinary attention drawn to the 22nd Congressional District race, much of it from well beyond California.
Outside interest groups, clamoring for postelection bragging rights, sank hundreds of thousands of dollars into advertising campaigns that promoted their respective agendas--term limits, abortion rights, opposition to late-term abortions--often irrespective of the candidates' professed wishes and voters' distinct disinterest.
One notable TV ad campaign targeted the sponsors of an opposing TV ad campaign--without ever mentioning any of the candidates running in the race.
Left to their own devices, Bordonaro and Capps, a political neophyte, waged a bruising campaign, quarreling over taxes, crime, Social Security and health care reform. Each tried to paint the other as a political extremist.
Virtually split between registered Democrats and Republicans, the scenic district ranges over oak-studded hillsides and up the craggy coastline from Santa Barbara to the Monterey County line. The wandering boundaries take in a collection of rural ranchers, left-leaning college students, tony beach dwellers and middle-class refugees from Los Angeles and other big cities.
For the two major political parties, the stakes were significant. With Republicans holding a mere 11-vote margin in the House, both parties were eager to enhance their positions heading into the fall campaign, when all 435 House seats will be contested.
The GOP was particularly hopeful of winning back a seat the party had held since World War II--until Walter Capps, a religious studies professor at UC Santa Barbara, won it away by a slim margin in 1996.
After Capps' sudden death, his 60-year-old widow, a former teacher and Santa Barbara school nurse, jumped into the race to succeed him, with the blessing of Democratic Party leaders who cleared the field on her behalf. Despite an all-out effort to capture the seat in a Jan. 13 primary, Capps fell shy of the necessary 50% in a crowded field, finishing with 45% of the vote.
Bordonaro, from Paso Robles, had an even rockier route to Tuesday's runoff, starting with his eleventh-hour entry into the contest last fall. He jumped into the race in defiance of Republican Party elders who had recruited the more moderate Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, believing that the patrician millionaire would be the stronger candidate in the relatively centrist district.
Starved for cash and spurned by his own party leaders, Bordonaro was boosted by support from religious conservatives and an independent ad campaign that attacked Firestone over his support for abortion rights. After a nasty skirmish, Bordonaro bested Firestone--his old seatmate in the Assembly--29% to 25% and advanced to the race against Capps.
But Bordonaro's assault on Firestone antagonized many Republican moderates, who made a showy display of support for Capps, and his attacks on the Republican establishment angered some party leaders, who withheld financial and staff support for several crucial weeks.
Eventually, however, the national party rallied behind Bordonaro, who campaigned alongside a range of GOP luminaries from presidential aspirants Dan Quayle, Jack Kemp and Steve Forbes to entertainment personalities such as Charlton Heston and game show host Alex Trebek.
Capps conspicuously eschewed appearances by national Democratic figures, although President Clinton, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Al Gore all raised money on her behalf at separate San Francisco appearances. Strategists for the Capps campaign said the decision to avoid close association with the administration and fellow Democrats was made months ago to emphasize the candidate's local roots.