As Democrats Try to Hold California Seat, Republicans Debate Ideology
By Lou Cannon
SANTA BARBARA, Calif., Nov. 17 A special election to fill a vacant congressional seat has become a national contest between the moderate and conservative wings of the Republican Party, and a test of whether Democrats can hold a district in which they won a political upset in 1996.
The campaign to replace Rep. Walter Holden Capps (D), who died of a heart attack on Oct. 28 after only 10 months in office, has already drawn attention from the congressional leadership of both parties. Capps was a popular professor of religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the first Democrat to represent this central California coastal district in Congress since World War II.
"Few congressional districts in the nation are as competitive or have voters who are more independent," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant who is advising Lois Capps, the congressman's widow. Lois Capps announced today that she will run for her husband's seat in the open primary election Jan. 13.
Three Republican candidates also are vying for the seat. There will be a runoff on March 10 between Capps, the only Democrat, and the leading Republican vote-getter unless one of the four candidates wins a majority in the January election.
The Republican candidates include state Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, one of the legislature's most liberal GOP members on social issues, and Assemblyman Tom Bordonaro, one of its most conservative. The third candidate, a moderate conservative, is former Santa Barbara County supervisor Mike Stoker.
Firestone, 61, a local vineyard owner and heir to a tire fortune, calls himself "a reasonable Republican." Politically unknown outside the district when first elected to the state Assembly in 1994, he has become a hero to GOP moderates in Sacramento for his stands in favor of gun control and abortion rights and for his repeated warnings in party caucuses that Republicans could become a permanent minority unless they are tolerant of diverse positions within their ranks.
Until Capps's death, Firestone had been campaigning for California's lieutenant governorship in 1998, and was favored to win. But he abandoned that race after former president Gerald R. Ford, who was a friend of Firestone's deceased father, Leonard, urged him to seek the congressional seat. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) also urged him to run.
Firestone's entry spurred opposition from the Christian Coalition and conservative House members who prefer Bordonaro. One of them, Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.), attacked Firestone for his support of gun control and gay rights and called him "the Christine Todd Whitman of California," a reference to the recently reelected governor of New Jersey.
Bordonaro, 38, a businessman and second-term assemblyman, considers himself a Jeffersonian who seeks to give state and local governments more power at the expense of the federal government. He is the only quadriplegic in the legislature, where his conservatism is matched by his sense of humor.
Asked by a reporter in his first campaign whether he preferred to be referred to as "disabled" or "physically challenged," he replied, "Actually, I'd prefer to be called Tom."
Stoker, 41, a lawyer, who unsuccessfully sought the seat in 1994, is widely regarded as a spoiler likely to draw more votes from Firestone than Bordonaro. He is chairman of the state Agricultural Relations Board in Sacramento, but has maintained a residence in the district and had planned to oppose Walter Capps in 1998.
Republican and Democratic registration is evenly divided at 41 percent in the district. The remaining voters declined to state a partisan preference or belong to one of five minor parties.
Firestone, who has the resources to finance his own campaign, is considered the favorite. But he may be at a disadvantage geographically because Bordonaro is the only candidate from San Luis Obispo, the northern and considerably more conservative county in the two-county district. The three other candidates are from more liberal Santa Barbara County.
All the candidates agree that the result will depend on turnout, which tends to be low in special elections, particularly after a holiday period. This could help Bordonaro, because conservatives often vote heavily in Republican primaries.
John Davies, Firestone's campaign manager, concedes that Bordonaro could win the primary but said, "He can't win the general election if he's the Republican nominee the district goes Democratic."
Walter Capps upset incumbent Republican Andrea Seastrand in 1996, in part because she was seen as too socially conservative for a district where polls show 2-to-1 support (and 5-to-4 support among Republicans) for abortion rights.
As for the prospects of Lois Capps, Carrick noted that Republicans usually are more apt to vote in special elections and said, "Our challenge is getting out the Democratic voters."
But Capps, a former nurse and teacher who has lived in Santa Barbara for 34 years, is popular here in her own right. She was a prominent voice in her husband's 1996 campaign after he was seriously injured in a head-on accident in which the driver of the other car was intoxicated. In her announcement today, Capps promised to "wage a positive campaign true to the legacy of Walter's special brand of service."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company