Primaries pose real fight for GOP

Times Staff Writer

First came the political mailer in which Republican state Senate candidate Harry Sidhu declared himself a fiscal conservative -- printed on the back of an El Pollo Loco coupon sheet.

Then came the piece last week in which he announced to voters -- without explanation -- “I’m just like you, but maybe a little cheaper.”

In between, there has been a whole lot of mud-slinging as Sidhu, an Anaheim councilman, battles it out with state Assemblywoman Mimi Walters in the primary fight for the 33rd State Senate District, a huge swath of inland Orange County with 520,000 registered voters that runs from Fullerton in the north to Laguna Niguel in the south.

With nearly $1.3 million spent between them so far, according to campaign disclosure filings, the race is on track to be one of the most expensive -- if not the most expensive -- primary fights in California this year.


In hit pieces that have flooded voters’ mailboxes, each has accused the other of being more liberal, with Walters casting Sidhu as soft on illegal immigration and Sidhu aligning Walters with former Democratic Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez.

Welcome to primary season, which in Orange County is the most competitive phase of the election cycle. Come November, most of Orange County’s Democratic candidates are expected to lose to Republicans, who will glide into office thanks to legislative seats designed with safe Republican majorities.

But this spring, as in virtually every election cycle, intraparty punch-ups have broken out in primaries across the county among Republicans vying to be their party’s candidate in the fall. In the Senate district that includes northeast Orange and Los Angeles and southwest San Bernardino counties, Assemblyman Bob Huff and former Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy are duking it out to see who will succeed Bob Margett. In the Assembly district that straddles Orange and Riverside counties, Rancho Santa Margarita Councilman Neil Blais is battling Corona Mayor Jeff Miller.

These races involve candidates trying to out-Republican one another and seize the true conservative mantle that appeals to the hard-core base of the party that turns out to vote in primaries.

“Typically in Republican primaries, and typically in Orange County, the candidates are going to be pretty close together philosophically, so it makes it more challenging to indicate differences between the candidates that can convince voters they should vote for you and not the other guy,” said Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine), the state Senate minority leader who is leaving office due to term limits and whose seat is the subject of the Sidhu-Walters tussle.

“With these seats, whoever wins the primary is going to win [the general], so in Orange County you’ve got fairly conservative people running,” he said. “If you read the mailers, each one claims they’re the conservative and the other one’s the liberal, and that’s what I’d do too.”

For Republican voters in the 33rd District, that has meant a race that has been as vitriolic as it has at times been bizarre. In addition to Sidhu’s unique campaign mail, voters have been treated to a campaign truck tooling around the district with advertisements on all sides touting Sidhu. It has been dubbed the Sidhu-mobile.

When Walters announced her intention to run for Ackerman’s seat, most of the Republican establishment, Ackerman included, aligned behind her. They planned to avoid an expensive primary fight and conserve money for the few competitive races in the state where they faced a real general election battle.

But to the chagrin of the party, Sidhu decided to run too, because it seemed a natural progression from the policy issues he has handled serving on the council of the 10th largest city in the state and because of contacts he has built throughout the Senate district. (The coupons for El Pollo Loco, it turns out, were redeemable at three franchises he owns at the southern end of the district.)

Republican leaders sought to persuade him to run for an open Assembly seat first, to no avail.

“She came from a small city,” Sidhu said of Walters. “Laguna Niguel versus Anaheim; there is no comparison.”

Walters did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

So the battle was joined. Each side said the other was at fault for going negative first.

Sidhu’s mail pieces depicted Walters as part of an intransigent Sacramento bureaucracy that is ill-serving California. Walters, picking off tried and true Republican issues, released a statement -- which Sidhu denied -- saying he supported easing term limits, and put out campaign mail questioning his commitment to cracking down on illegal immigration.

The most controversial piece from Walters had the look of an official report from the Orange County Grand Jury, saying Sidhu voted to reject a grand jury recommendation that Anaheim check immigration status in the city jail. In fact, the city already had an immigration program in place in the jail, and the grand jury rebuked the Walters campaign for sending out political mail that it deemed “deliberately misleading and deceptive.”

After that, Sidhu called a news conference on the steps of Anaheim City Hall to say he was abandoning all negative campaigning. With a dramatic flourish, he fed his prepared hit pieces on Walters into a shredder.

“The way I see it, I’m committed to my campaign,” Sidhu said. “When I saw the negative points raised by my opponent, and setting a standard very very low, a new low, it came to me, enough is enough. I said, ‘I’m not going to do it; I’m not going to go that route.’ ”

While he may have renounced negative campaigning, not everyone is laying down arms.

Sidhu received campaign contributions from the Orange County Employees Assn. and was endorsed by the Log Cabin Republicans, a group that champions gay rights as part of a conservative agenda. The California Republican Assembly weighed in recently with a piece saying Sidhu was backed by “labor union bosses” and “militant homosexuals.”