Single-Issue Ads Driving California Race
By Lou Cannon
At stake in the March 10 special election is control of a closely contested House district, California's 22nd, which includes San Luis Obispo County and most of Santa Barbara County. The seat has been vacant since October, when Rep. Walter Capps died of a heart attack after 10 months in office.
Capps, a popular professor of religious studies at the University of California Santa Barbara, was the first Democrat to represent the district since World War II. Vying to replace him are his widow Lois, a school nurse who was unopposed for the Democratic nomination, and State Assemblyman Tom Bordonaro, a businessman who won the Republican nomination in a mild upset against a better-financed and moderate opponent.
In the runoff, Bordonaro and Capps have stressed education and fiscal issues while responding to questions about federal disaster policies from residents whose homes and businesses have been damaged or threatened by a series of El Nin~o-driven storms. But the candidates' home-town messages have been overshadowed by campaigns waged by national single-issue groups.
So far, the heaviest outside spender has been the Virginia-based Campaign for Working Families, an anti-abortion group headed by Gary Bauer, a former Reagan administration official. Bauer's group spent nearly $100,000 in the primary on ads denouncing a late-term abortion procedure it describes as "partial-birth" abortion. A spokesman said the organization intends to spend an equivalent amount in the runoff campaign.
The other big spender has been Americans for Limited Terms, with a budget of $185,000 for television and radio ads during the runoff.
Bordonaro and Capps say that neither term limits nor abortion is high among voter concerns in this district. "The local issues have been completely swept away by these television ads on partial-birth abortion and term limits," said Jeff Farrell, a Santa Barbara real estate agent. "It's a pity."
Nevertheless, both candidates have responded to the avalanche of single-issue commercials.
Backers of State Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, a wealthy abortion rights advocate who lost to Bordonaro in the GOP primary, say he was defeated because of the partial-birth abortion ads. Now, Capps has become the target of them. A new commercial by the Campaign for Working Families declares, "Tom Bordonaro and the American Medical Association support banning this terrible procedure. Unfortunately, Lois Capps doesn't."
Capps, who came across in the primary as an unqualified supporter of abortion rights, fired back with a television ad in which she said: "I am strongly pro-choice. My opponent opposes a woman's right to choose. I oppose late-term abortions, except in rare cases, such as saving a woman's life or preserving her ability to bear children after a fatally flawed pregnancy."
In an interview, Capps said the Campaign for Working Families is trying to use late-term abortion as a "wedge issue" to distract voters from Bordonaro's opposition to abortion rights.
Soon, another single-issue campaign is scheduled to wade into the debate.
Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, said her organization will match the spending of the Campaign for Working Families with television ads and mailings that stress abortion rights themes and favor Capps. She called Bordonaro "an extremist" and said his election would send a dangerous signal.
Meanwhile, Bordonaro, a consistent supporter of term-limits legislation, is being depicted by two Washington-based groups, U.S. Term Limits and Americans for Limited Terms, as a foe of term limits. They favor Capps, who signed a pledge to serve no more than three terms in Congress. Bordonaro refused to sign the pledge, which he called a "sham."
Capps, however, said in an interview that she does not favor an amendment to the Constitution limiting the terms of House members. She said she signed the pledge because she is 60 and does not want to serve more than three terms.
Bordonaro, 38, has promised to vote for any term-limits amendment but said it should apply to everyone in Congress at the same time.
Easy-going and polished in debate, he calls himself a "compassionate conservative." He has been in a wheelchair with limited use of his arms since a car accident in 1977. Bordonaro never refers to his physical condition, but in an emotional television ad he emphasized a tough-on-crime message by saying that his sister Sandy was murdered 25 years ago because she was a witness in a drug case.
"It doesn't matter to Tom that he's the underdog," says his campaign manager, Jim Kjol. "He's dealt with a lot more in his life than the possibility of losing an election."
Lois Capps has dealt with much, too, since her husband's death, and her grief was evident in the primary campaign. She said in an interview that campaigning to "maintain Walter's legacy" has been therapeutic, but friends said it has been difficult for her.
Capps, the daughter of a Lutheran minister, has lived in Santa Barbara for 34 years and is popular among nurses and teachers. She has strong support in southern Santa Barbara County, the more liberal part of the district, where Bordonaro did poorly in the primary.
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