'B-1 Bob' Dornan Is on the Attack Again
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 16, 1998; Page A04
GARDEN GROVE, Calif.Robert K. Dornan, for 18 years the enfant terrible of the House Republican caucus, says he had an "epiphany" last week when he looked at the sample ballot for California's June 2 blanket primary and saw his name practically alongside that of his nemesis, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D). It was time to go negative, Dornan decided.
Never mind that the feisty conservative had already accused Sanchez of masterminding the "worst voter fraud in this century" in her razor-thin victory over him two years ago, or that she was a "pretend Hispanic" and an anti-Catholic because of her stand in favor of a woman's right to choose an abortion.
The time had come to start playing hardball, said Dornan, who once grabbed a congressional colleague by the necktie and called him a draft-dodging wimp. Sitting in his cluttered campaign headquarters here, Dornan ticked off a half-dozen attack allegations he had jotted down on a yellow legal pad before sending it off to a printing shop for his next primary campaign brochure:
Sanchez had never voted before the 1996 election; her husband tore up Dornan posters in that campaign; she voted four times in the House against banning the controversial "partial birth" abortion procedure; she married out of church; she once deadlocked a jury by voting to acquit a drunk driver after the defendant's wife asked her for an autograph; and she violated House rules by using the congressional seal on a campaign mailer.
"I'm running against Loretta Sanchez because of the ballot and the crossover vote. She beat me with a stealth campaign last time, but I'm entitled to a last hurrah. Win or lose, I'm going out with my best shot," said Dornan.
No doubt about it, "B-1 Bob" is back, bombastic as ever and ready for another gloves-off fight against the woman he accuses of stealing his House seat by registering noncitizen voters, defeating him by only 979 votes in the last election. For more than a year the 65-year-old Dornan waged a bitter fight that took on racial overtones but failed to overturn the vote. Investigators found that some noncitizen voters had indeed cast ballots, but the House found insufficient grounds for calling a new election.
At the start of the current campaign, Dornan seemed prepared to try the kinder and gentler approach. He dusted off and distributed old leftover flyers stored in his garage that pictured him, as a young Air Force fighter pilot, sitting with prominent civil rights leaders listening to Martin Luther King's historic speech at the 1963 March on Washington.
He concentrated on his three GOP primary opponents, Lisa Hughes, a successful family law attorney; Superior Court Judge Jim Gray; and retired electrical engineer Cornelius Coronado. With his name recognition, he figured, a crowded field of Republicans could only help him win the nomination.
But the nature of the new "blanket" primary, in which voters can cast ballots for candidates of any party, and the shifting demographics of the once-solidly Republican 46th Congressional district, led Dornan to his epiphany and the stepped-up attack campaign he says he will begin against Sanchez next week.
Covering the heart of sprawling and traditionally conservative Orange County, this onetime bastion of defense and aerospace workers is not nearly as reliably Republican as it once was. B-1 Bob, whose nickname comes from his relentless crusade for the California-made bomber, no longer has the kind of cachet he once had here.
The 46th District's population has steadily changed over the years and is now 50 percent Latino and 12 percent Asian. This demographic trend, coupled with aggressive Latino voter registration drives, has made the battleground increasingly Democratic to the point where even four years before his last campaign against Sanchez, Dornan had a closer than usual brush with a relatively unknown Latino opponent whom he defeated with the uncharacteristically low margin of 50 to 41 percent.
Moreover, Sanchez, the only Democrat in the race, has raised more than $1.7 million, some of it in fund-raisers attended by President Clinton, Vice President Gore and former Texas governor Ann Richards. This has left her with more cash on hand nearly $1 million than all of the GOP candidates combined and will probably make the race one of the most expensive and closely watched in the House. Dornan raised $1.4 million at last count, but most of it was through expensive direct-mail appeals and he was left with only about $150,000 in his treasury.
Dornan, who said he cannot afford television buys in the expensive southern California market, has relied mostly on direct-mail advertising, precinct walks, radio and television talk shows and working the telephones to overcome what he concedes are negative feelings from his challenge to Sanchez's election.
"I never had a fixation on Hispanics when I talked about voter fraud, but the Democrats were very clever in playing the race card, and my own party, I'm sorry to say, let me down," the nine-term former congressman said. "So, I've got a real problem here."
For her part, Sanchez, who has been commuting from Washington on weekends to campaign, said she will try to ignore Dornan and "just continue being a congresswoman working for her district." She has spent a lot of time fund-raising and visiting schools to press for education improvements. She said she has spent little time worrying about what Dornan will say about her.
While she claimed to have no preference as to who her opponent will be in November, Sanchez did allow that she is not exactly looking forward to another head-to-head fight with Dornan. "He's a nasty guy. I don't relish running against him again," she said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company