Capps's Calif. Win Boosts Democrats
By Lou Cannon
SANTA BARBARA, Calif., March 11 Democrat Lois Capps, the widow of Rep. Walter Capps (D-Calif.), won a key special election here by exploiting Republican conflicts that analysts warned could haunt the GOP in the November elections.
Capps's defeat of conservative Republican Tom Bordonaro by a 53 percent to 45 percent in a relatively upscale, central coastal California district that leans to the GOP was immediately claimed as a major win by national Democratic leaders, by women and by advocates of abortion rights.
The election was widely watched by strategists on both sides as a harbinger of the fall elections when the entire House is up for grabs. Republican leaders, however, sought to play down the results, pointing out that widows running to replace their late husbands have won 36 of 38 contests. Rep. John Linder (Ga.), National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, claimed that Bordonaro will defeat Capps in a November re-run and stuck by predictions that the GOP will pick up at least 13 House seats then.
But the outcome of Tuesday's election has already provoked a threatening revival of intercine conflict between the moderate and religious wings of the GOP that could damage the party's prospects in November.
Randy Tate, executive director of the Christian Coalition, which distributed antiabortion voter guides and made get-out-the-vote phone calls, said there is "a bit of a double standard when GOP moderates throughout the country expect and receive conservative support on election day, but those same moderates switch parties rather than support a conservative who wins a primary fair and square."
Dina Merrill, head of the Republican Pro-Choice PAC, countered: "Tom Bordonaro sealed his fate during January's primary when he handed the controls of his campaign to right-wing leader Gary Bauer. ... Californians rejected Gary Bauer and the candidate he programmed."
Bordonaro had defeated Brooks Firestone, a GOP moderate, in a primary marked by attacks on Firestone by Bauer's PAC, the Campaign for Working Families, that stressed Firestone's unwillingness to support a ban on a controversial late-term abortion procedure, called "partial birth abortion" by its opponents.
"He won the primary with a vicious campaign but it cost him the general election," said Firestone. An estimated 40 percent of Firestone's primary supporters cast ballots for Capps in the general election, according to Fred Yang, Capps's pollster.
"The right wing triumphed [in the primary] and could not elect its candidate," crowed Rep. Martin Frost (Tex.), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, who predicted similar liabilities of "extremist" ideologies will damage GOP candidates in at least eight other districts. "We think Republicans are following a path that will lead to their own destruction."
John Davies, a Firestone adviser, said Democrats should give plaques to Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.), who urged Bordonaro to run, and to Bauer.
Capps consultant Bill Carrick said Bordonaro "never reached out to the people who were disaffected by the primary campaign. We spent all the resources we could trying to reach Firestone voters."
Bauer's PAC spent $200,000 on television commercials in the primary and general election campaigns that denounced" Firestone and Capps for not supporting a ban on partial-birth abortions. But Davies said the ads backfired. "The impact of the ads in the runoff was to remind Firestone voters that he [Bordonaro] was the guy who had punched their friend in the face," he said.
Bauer contended that his efforts paid off. "We brought him from nowhere to beat a Republican who outspend him 5 to 1," Bauer said. "Bordonaro got 29 percent of the vote in the primary, and this time, in the final, he got 45 percent. We still feel it's a net plus. We are putting the conservative agenda front and center."
Yang's polling showed that the Capps campaign and its allies had been far more successful portraying Bordonaro as a conservative "extremist" than Bordonaro's campaign had been in convincing the electorate that Capps was a liberal "extremist." When asked if Bordonaro's views were "mainstream" or "extremist," voters were split; in contrast, voters described Capps as "mainstream" by better than a 3 to 1 margin.
Among the single-issue television commercials was an unusual spot by the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League that denounced Bauer but did not mention either candidate by name. "When voters were confronted with the truth about what he stood for through our ads, they rejected Bauer's extreme position," said Kate Michelman, head of NARAL.
Other special-interest groups also advertised or distributed campaign material, including the Christian Coalition, the Sierra Club, Americans for Job Security and People for the American Way.
Capps and Bordonaro said they were rarely asked by voters about abortion or other single issues such as term limits and claimed voters resented the advertising onslaught.
While the special-interest ads drew national attention, the campaign may have been determined on the ground by a strong volunteer effort on behalf of Capps that targeted Democrats, independents and Firestone voters. Capps proved an indefatigable campaigner. Nervous in her first debates with Bordonaro, a more accomplished speaker, she steadily improved during the runoff campaign.
Capps said her victory was in part a tribute to her husband Walter, a popular professor of religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara who died last Oct. 28 after only 10 months in office.
The two candidates will face each other again in November; Bordonaro is unopposed in the June primary and Capps has token opposition. Carrick contended that because of Capps's strong margin of victory, national Republicans will probably target other districts.
Staff writer Thomas B. Edsall and staff researcher Ben White in Washington contributed to this report.
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