The political resurrection of former Republican Rep. Robert K. Dornan went down to a crashing defeat Tuesday night as both parties battled to the finish in an election that did not significantly alter the balance of power in California's huge congressional delegation.
Incumbent Democrat Loretta Sanchez burst out of the gate with a solid lead and pummeled Dornan as their two-year, $6.3-million slugfest wound to a close. Sanchez defeated the fiery conservative in a 1996 upset that Dornan vowed to reverse, resulting in the most expensive congressional race in the country this year.
"People are just fed up with all the things they've had to put up with the past two years," Sanchez said. "Bob Dornan is about the past, Loretta Sanchez is about the future, and people want to move forward."
Dornan, stubborn in his resolve to reclaim the office he held for nine terms, refused to concede. Asked what he would do if he lost, he responded: "I got more runs in me. I've got lots more runs in me. Look at John Glenn. He's 13 years older than me."
In another of a handful of closely watched matches, Republican Assemblyman Steve Kuykendall held a narrow lead against Democrat Janice Hahn in the contest for the South Bay seat left open by Democratic Rep. Jane Harman's unsuccessful run for governor.
While Democrats nationwide were having unexpected good fortune, the tide did not appear strong enough to lift the prospects of water-rights attorney Sandie Dunn in her race with Republican millionaire Doug Ose for West Sacramento's open seat.
Neither did the Democratic trend appear strong enough to harm freshman Republican Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Glendale), who took a sizable early lead and held it against former Screen Actors Guild President Barry Gordon in the only race that might have been swayed by the Clinton scandal because of the incumbent's role in the impeachment process as a high-profile member of the House Judiciary Committee.
Despite a roller-coaster election season, most California congressional incumbents were safe from challenge with no major shifts in control of the delegation, which is currently divided at 29 Democrats and 23 Republicans. It appeared Tuesday that California's electorate would give the GOP a net gain of one seat.
The results ended a year of chaotic twists and turns. With a popular president and a strong economy, Democrats started out hoping to defy off-year history and win the 11 seats they needed to take back the House majority.
Then came the White House sex scandal, and in a sudden shift of the tables Republicans seemed poised to leave their rivals in the dust.
In the end, though, not much would change in California's 52-member delegation, the nation's largest. Most incumbents were shoo-ins for reelection and the handful who found themselves in tough races appeared positioned to survive.
The state's most embattled incumbent clearly was Sanchez, whose fight to beat back Dornan's challenge resulted in the most expensive congressional contest in the state and the second-costliest ever.
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 contesting the election, claiming that noncitizens voting illegally had sent Sanchez to Washington. After a lengthy investigation, Congress earlier this year let the election stand.
Also positioned to survive a tougher-than-expected challenge, Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Pleasanton) was poised to defeat longshot Republican Charles Ball, a defense analyst and political newcomer who mounted a much stronger campaign than either party initially expected.
With most incumbents safe, the real election night drama was in three of California's open seats.
The Republican-leaning South Bay seat vacated by Harman had been a hard one for the Democrat to hold in past elections. She initially won in a 1992 upset fueled by her abortion-rights message and personal wealth. When she bowed out this year, Republican Kuykendall was given the edge over Hahn in a district many thought would revert to form.
Another wobbler ripe for Republican picking was the West Sacramento seat held for 20 years by politically powerful Democratic Rep. Vic Fazio, who is retiring. The increasingly Republican district forced Fazio to spend more than $1 million in recent campaigns.
Republican Ose, the owner of a storage supply business, had the early lead against Dunn.
One sure pickup for the Democrats was the Northern California seat held by Republican Rep. Frank Riggs, who left Congress to make an aborted run for the Senate. Democratic state Sen. Mike Thompson looked to be the likely victor over Republican Napa County Supervisor Mark Luce. The seat was likely to be the Democratic party's only California gain.
There was no suspense in two other open districts that were sure to stick with the parties already representing them.
Republican Assemblyman Gary Miller was headed to succeed Republican Rep. Jay Kim in the rock-solid GOP Diamond Bar district. Kim was ousted in the primary after his conviction on campaign finance violations.
And in Los Angeles, the seat of retiring Rep. Esteban Torres, a Democrat, was expected to be a clear win for state Assemblywoman Grace Napolitano.
In other noteworthy races:
* Rep. Lois Capps was expected to win a rematch against Republican Tom Bordonaro. Capps won a special election last spring to fill the unexpired term of her late husband, who died last year.
* Rep. Brad Sherman was expected to fend off a challenge from Republican Randy Hoffman, head of a satellite navigation systems firm.