By Heather Knight, Times staff writer
A nonpartisan Washington group that studies voting trends has identified U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) as one of just a handful of House incumbents likely to lose their 1998 reelection bids.
A new report by the Center for Voting and Democracy calls Sanchez an "underdog" in next year's election, in part because of skepticism that the insurgency of Latino voters that fueled her campaign in 1996 will hold strong next year.
"There was a big movement in the district toward Clinton, largely among Latino voters," said Robert Richie, the center's executive director. He expressed doubts that the Latino turnout will be sustained in an election year without a presidential election.
Without the Latino vote, the district is relatively conservative in its electoral record, the center said.
Clinton himself benefitted from the increased Latino turnout in 1996--he won 49% of the district's vote that year, up from 37% in 1992, according to the report.
Part of the Latino insurgency, Richie said, stemmed from a heightened attention to immigration issues, particularly with continuing controversy in California over the passage of Proposition 187 in 1994, which curtailed the rights of illegal immigrants. Whether immigration remains a focus next year will help determine the Latino turnout, Richie said.
Another obstacle to Sanchez's reelection, according to Richie, is her ethnicity.
"Minority candidates just don't run as well among white voters as white candidates do," he said.
Sanchez is one of only eight House incumbents nation- wide -- of a possible 435 -- who the center predicts will fail to win reelection. Just one other, Rep. Walter Capps (D-Santa Barbara), is from California. Capps beat former GOP Rep. Andrea Seastrand, a conservative loyalist of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in 1996; Seastrand had narrowly defeated Capps in 1994 to claim the then-open seat, which historically has been held by Republicans.
Responding to the center's analysis, Sanchez's chief of staff embraced the underdog tag. "We were the underdog in '96 and we shocked the world," Steve Jost said. "We're happy to be the underdog in '98 and shock them again. The only thing better than beating Bob Dornan once is beating him twice."
Former GOP Rep. Robert K. Dornan, who narrowly lost the now-disputed 1996 race to Sanchez, has not decided whether to challenge Sanchez in 1998. If he does opt to run, Richie said, the center would view Sanchez's reelection chances as brighter.
Dornan, whom Richie called an "ideological candidate," has made inflammatory remarks against gays and illegal immigrants. Richie said these comments tend to make some moderate Republicans uncomfortable and cause Dornan to lose a few percentage points.
"If [Dornan] runs again, it will be a tossup," Richie said. "If the Republicans ran a safer candidate, I think Sanchez would be in big trouble."
Dornan has contested the results of the 1996 race, claiming voter fraud on the part of noncitizens, and the House Oversight Committee is currently investigating the claim.
The center's report, released earlier this week, predicted that the vast majority of House incumbents -- 317 -- will win reelection next year by a margin of at least 10%.
And despite the current focus on political fund-raising and the importance of money in the U.S. election process, the report concluded that the ideological beliefs of voters, rather than a campaign's financial status, are the key to most House races.
"Most U.S. House elections are not competitive for one simple reason: A clear majority of voters in a given district prefer one party's philosophy over that of the other party," the report said.