California House Race Could Split Delegation

GOP Members Already Taking Sides in Primary to Replace Ose; Moderates Seek a Candidate

Posted September 24, 2003 at 5:45pm

While most of the political energy in Sacramento is currently being consumed by the campaign to recall Gov. Gray Davis (D), a potentially thorny House Republican primary fight is quietly brewing next door to the Golden State capital.

Former state Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren’s (R) impending formal entrance into the race to replace retiring Rep. Doug Ose (R) sets the stage for a contest that could split the support of the California House GOP delegation between Lungren and state Sen. Rico Oller (R), who has already announced for the seat.

Oller has already been endorsed by California GOP Reps. John Doolittle, Richard Pombo and Wally Herger. Also on board are the conservative group Club for Growth, former gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon (R) and 1998 Senate nominee Matt Fong (R).

“I will probably help him raise money,” Pombo said. “He’s been a friend for a long time.”

Pombo and Doolittle in particular have been very active in encouraging Oller’s candidacy, and their endorsements carry a great deal of weight in the Northern California conservative community.

“We helped talk him into getting into the race,” Pombo said of himself and Doolittle.

Lungren, meanwhile, has been gathering support from law enforcement officials, including a prominent county sheriff and a local district attorney. He has a $2,000-a-head fundraiser scheduled for tonight in Sacramento, with former Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr headlining.

“This is just a small beginning,” Lungren told the Modesto Bee about the Starr event. “This is close to being serious now. … I just want to make sure that everyone understands where we are, the challenge that’s involved, how serious we are and how serious I am about it. That’s something you need to do eye to eye.”

Lungren also has strong relationships with many California lawmakers dating back to his previous service in the House, though none has yet publicly endorsed him.

With the filing deadline more than two months away, there remains the possibility that additional GOP contenders will jump into the race, given the relative scarcity of open, Republican-leaning seats in California.

“I would be surprised if more candidates didn’t get in,” Pombo said.

While Ose has long been a leader of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership, both Oller and Lungren are solid conservatives, prompting widespread speculation that the incumbent would try to recruit a successor who might follow in his ideological footsteps. Leaders of the moderate Republican group are holding out hope that the incumbent does find a like-minded candidate for the primary.

But Ose said he has not taken any steps to draw another candidate into the race.

“I have been very circumspect,” Ose said. “I’ve done nothing to encourage or dissuade anyone.”

Ose added that he wouldn’t be the one to publicize another candidate’s bid if one was to materialize.

“If there is someone else who’s interested, the first step would have to be his, not mine,” he said.

With the current two-man field, Republican operatives in Washington and California said they saw Oller as the frontrunner, pointing to his strong ideological and geographical base.

Oller’s state Senate seat currently includes about 70 percent of the 3rd district’s voters. Lungren, meanwhile, had been living in Roseville, outside of the 3rd, but recently sold his house to move into the district. He is originally from Southern California and does not have the long-term roots in the area that Oller does, having moved to the Sacramento area in the 1990s when he became attorney general. Lungren spent 10 years in the House representing Long Beach from 1979 to 1989.

Democrats, meanwhile, believe they have a shot to steal the seat despite the fact that it was made more advantageous to Republicans during the last round of redistricting.

The potential victory scenario painted by Democrats is one in which they nominate a centrist while the GOP ends up with a candidate far to the right of the moderate Ose.

“The Republicans are very likely to have a bloody primary in which one candidate tries to get even further to the right than the other one,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Greg Speed. “That could leave them with someone far too conservative for a district where 80 percent of the voters live in suburban communities.”

Democratic sources said that potential candidates on their side include state Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, state Sen. Deborah Ortiz and financial adviser Gabe Castillo.

None of the three has yet expressed a clear interest in running, though Ortiz’s state Senate seat is not up in 2004, so she could well jump into the House race at the last minute without worrying about giving up her current post.

But National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti expressed confidence that the seat would remain in the GOP column, pointing to President Bush’s strong performance there in 2000.

“It’s a 55 percent Bush district,” Forti said. “If Bush gets 55 percent in any district in California, it’s a pretty safe Republican seat.”