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The Rise and Fall of Dornan Shows Power of Latino Vote

By Daniel SneiderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 18, 1996



SAN FRANCISCO

Among the freshmen congressmen who arrived in Washington on Friday for an orientation session was one certified, came-out-of-nowhere, giant-killer.

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Loretta Sanchez, a Hispanic businesswoman from southern California's Orange County, was relatively unknown in the Democratic primary last spring.

"No one was paying any attention to her," recounts Mike Farber, the favorite to win the Democratic nomination. "On the night of the primary no one had even heard of her."

Now she is attracting national attention as the person who finally toppled nine-term Rep. Robert Dornan (R), who was well-known across the country for his bombastic brand of conservative politics.

Mr. Dornan specialized in outrageous attacks on his opponents - not only Democrats but also moderate Republicans - often delivered late at night before an empty House chamber but broadcast nationwide via C-Span.

Ms. Sanchez's surprise victory by just hundreds of votes, still awaiting official certification, is being attributed to various factors, among them the emergence of Hispanic voters as a more active electoral force. Her district is 50 percent Hispanic in population, but Hispanics have generally not been registered or voted in corresponding numbers.

"When the numbers are finally analyzed, it will show we had a great surge of Latino activity, as was seen across the country and particularly in California," Sanchez says in a telephone interview from Washington.

Hispanic vote

Sanchez and others point to several campaigns, one directed by the Democratic Party and another nonpartisan effort, to encourage Hispanics to vote by absentee ballot, in part to counter fears of intimidation at polling sites and to overcome a history of low turnout. More than 11,000 Hispanics voted by absentee ballot, says political consultant Nathan Callahan.

The result was evident in California's 46th District. Dornan enjoyed a slim lead when the regular votes were counted, but the absentee ballots went Sanchez's way, giving her a 665- vote margin of victory. Some 1,500 "contested ballots," cast by voters who claimed to be registered but were not on the lists, remain to be counted but are not expected to change the outcome of the election.

Dornan has cried foul, claiming that many of the absentee balloters were not United States citizens and vowing to challenge the result in the House. But he has yet to present any concrete evidence to that effect. The House Oversight Committee, which would ultimately rule on any appeal, pointedly invited Sanchez to the freshmen orientation, despite Republican control of that body.

In the end, analysts say, overconfidence may have led to Dornan's defeat. Confidence that he would hold on to his House seat for a 10th term led him to pursue a longshot bid for the Republican nomination for president.

Even when he was garnering minuscule percentages of the primary vote, Dornan said he would continue to raise the conservative standard and pressed Sen. Bob Dole (R), the likely nominee, to embrace the party's conservative social agenda.

In an interview earlier this year, Dornan dismissed any possibility that his presidential campaign might endanger his simultaneous bid for re-election to the House.

"The only way I ever get a tough race is if the Los Angeles Times decides to take me down," Dornan told the Monitor. "I have never had an effective or serious challenger."

Of course, Dornan had a well-earned reputation as a tough campaigner who loved to engage in all-out personal attacks on his opponents. "He's a mean individual," says Ilene Padberg who managed the 1992 campaign of Judy Ryan, a moderate Republican who challenged Dornan in the 1992 primary.

Sanchez was advised by a long list of Dornan victims, among them Ms. Ryan. "There was a good book on what to expect, that he runs a nasty campaign," says Sanchez. "There was not a lot of 'Run Loretta, run.'"

In the past, Dornan also ensured victory by raising money from a well-oiled national network of hard-core backers. In 1994, he spent more than $2.2 million to defeat his Democratic opponent, Mr. Farber.

'Waltz to victory'

This time around, "Bob Dornan was asleep at the switch," says Farber. He spent his money running for president and was dismissive of Sanchez as an opponent almost up until the last days of the campaign.

"I don't think he viewed her seriously at all," says Farber, who ran his own independent "Dump Dornan" campaign. "I think he thought it would be a waltz to victory and it was a dance to doom."

Dornan, who could not be reached for comment, may also have been quietly left adrift by his Republican friends.

Very little aid came his way from the Republican Party. Some attribute this to the fact that many Republicans are less than enamored of his attack-dog tactics, which have often been aimed at those he thinks are less than true to his all-out brand of conservative politics.

"I've gotten many personal asides from Republicans saying, 'It's nice to have you on board, good job,'" Sanchez says from the Capitol.