A Republican state senator sailed to victory Tuesday in a special congressional election in coastal Orange County featuring a maverick, third-party candidate who sought to capitalize on growing fears of illegal immigration.
In a race that drew national attention, Sen. John Campbell (R-Irvine) held a wide lead throughout the evening, ending the night with nearly 45% of the vote. But it was Minuteman Project co-founder and first-time candidate Jim Gilchrist of the American Independent Party who drew the spotlight with his one-issue campaign.
Campbell, 50, was buoyant Tuesday night. “People always want to draw big conclusions, but campaigns ultimately are about the people who are running, and I’d like to think that voters thought I did a good job for them in the last five years,” he said.
Democrat Steve Young finished second with 28%, and Gilchrist was third with 25%. Both candidates significantly boosted their totals over the October special election, while Campbell gained just 30 more votes.
Gilchrist lost the election, but he found victory in his showing.
“This is just a start,” he said at a party Tuesday night in Lake Forest. “We’ve got a huge victory tonight because we’ve issued a wake-up call to America.... Our cause is not over, nor is my aspiration for my political career.”
Experts said the five-person race could provide a unique opportunity to gauge the effectiveness of illegal immigration as an issue in Republican areas.
“Illegal immigration is the overwhelming issue in Orange County, and that’s why he was able to come out of nowhere, because it was the perfect issue for Gilchrist to run on,” said consultant Scott Hart, who supports Campbell.
But it wasn’t enough, he said. “As a member of Congress, you have to tackle a number of critical issues facing this country.”
Added Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University in Orange: “The share of the vote that Gilchrist receives will be watched across the nation by people like the president of the United States.”
The district, which stretches from Newport Beach to Dana Point and as far inland as Tustin, has twice as many Republicans as Democrats, leaving little doubt that Campbell -- strongly backed by the GOP establishment -- would win easily.
Voters Tuesday chose among Campbell, Gilchrist, Democrat Steve Young, Libertarian Bruce Cohen and Bea Tiritilli of the Green Party.
Gilchrist, 56, a retired accountant from Aliso Viejo, upstaged the others in what would otherwise have been a routine exercise to anoint a GOP successor to former Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), now chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Gilchrist controlled the debate, focusing almost solely on illegal immigration. His views became fodder for radio and television talk shows and even a small mention in NBC’s political drama, “The West Wing.” In his television and radio ads, he suggested that his performance in the election would send a message to President Bush.
One radio spot said, “Every vote that Jim Gilchrist receives is a message to President Bush that his guest worker-amnesty program is wrong and that it’s time to secure our borders now.... President Bush needs to hear from you, not with a phone call or a letter or an e-mail; he needs to see it at the polls.”
Gilchrist’s focus on protecting the U.S. border swayed Kevin Craib, 21, of Lake Forest, a construction manager and registered Republican who voted for Gilchrist.
“I’m a strong conservative, but this time I felt something should be done about illegal immigration, so I came out to vote,” Craib said. “It’s a big issue, and it’s coming to a head. Even though he won’t win, at least he brought the topic up for debate.”
Gilchrist hit the national radar in April when he was a chief organizer of the Minuteman Project, volunteers watching the Mexican border in Arizona.
The race pushed Campbell to get campaign help from national GOP heavyweights. Fundraisers on both coasts helped the former car dealer, who was elected to the state Assembly in 2000. Vice President Dick Cheney spoke at a Campbell gathering in Washington, and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman traveled to Orange County for an event.
Gilchrist counted on support from Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration. Tancredo drew the wrath of fellow Republicans by endorsing Gilchrist and appearing on radio and television advertisements urging voters to choose him.
Even Young, an attorney, got a late boost from his national party. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean recorded phone messages urging voters to turn out.
Gilchrist presented himself as a citizen activist. He demanded that the federal government control the border and punish employers providing the jobs for an estimated 10 million illegal immigrants in the United States. His message helped him raise $500,000 across the country -- a startling sum for a minor-party candidate in such a safe district.
The election continued a whirlwind political career for Campbell, who served one four-year Assembly term and a portion of a second before being easily elected to an open state Senate seat.
The newly elected congressman will be sworn in immediately. So assured of his victory, Campbell and his family had already booked flights this morning to Washington. He also has picked many of his new staffers, who will begin work today.
His first order of business: “I don’t even own a winter coat. I’m going to have to get one there.”
Times staff writers Mai Tran and Kimi Yoshino contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
*--* 48th Congressional District
*--* Short Term
*--* 100% Precincts Reporting Votes % John Campbell (R) 41,450 45 Steve Young (D) 25,926 28 Jim Gilchrist (AI) 23,237 25 Bea Tiritilli (G) 1,242 1 Bruce Cohen (L) 880 1
(R) -- Republican; (D) -- Democrat; (G) -- Green; (AI) -- American Independent; (L) -- Libertarian
Los Angeles Times