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Jewish World Review April 11, 2001 / 18 Nissan, 5761

John H. Fund

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A conservative hero may mount a California comeback -- AN exodus of longtime residents and an influx of Hispanics have taken a little of the edge off the hard-right political angles for which Orange County has been famous since before the Goldwater movement of 1964. But conservatism with a libertarian bent is still the dominant political philosophy in the county, whose population grew to three million in the 2000 census. Al Gore had to struggle to clear 40% of the vote in a county that's home to such symbols of Middle America as Disneyland and Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral.

Orange County is the political base of such prominent conservative congressmen as Chris Cox and Dana Rohrabacher, both former aides of President Reagan who first won their seats as Mr. Reagan left office in 1988. But it now looks as if President Bush is about to appoint Mr. Cox to a seat on the Ninth U.S. Court of Appeals. Local Republicans are urging Jim Rogan, the House impeachment manager who lost his Pasadena-based House seat last November, to move south and replace Mr. Cox in a special election that would likely be held late this year.

House Republicans have long viewed 48-year-old Mr. Cox as a comer. A brainy Harvard Law School graduate, he is currently head of the Republican Conference, the fifth-ranking member of the House leadership. But Mr. Cox has been thwarted in his efforts to rise higher. He briefly declared his candidacy to become House speaker after Newt Gingrich's retirement in November 1998, but as a Young Turk, he was elbowed aside as too cerebral and not respectful enough of Republican old bulls.

Still, he has had some successes. In 1998 he won congressional approval of the Internet Tax Freedom Act, a bipartisan effort to block states from imposing special taxes on internet commerce. The next year he succeeded in steering a bipartisan panel conducting a closed-door review of U.S. technology transfers to China into issuing a unanimous report, even though it greatly embarrassed the Clinton White House. Should he be appointed to the federal appeals court, he will no doubt join the list of potential Supreme Court nominees.

Should Mr. Cox leave his House seat, a dozen years of pent-up ambition in his Newport Beach-centered district will be released. Several term-limited GOP state legislators would be interested, as would Mark Chapin Johnson, a wealthy businessman who has financed several efforts by moderate Republicans to wrest control of the Orange County GOP machinery from longtime conservative leader Tom Fuentes.

Conservative Republicans, who believe Mr. Johnson would spend more than $1 million of his own money to win the GOP special-election primary, are actively recruiting a celebrity--Mr. Rogan, whose reputation among grassroots Republicans is similar to that of Mel Gibson's William Wallace among his troops in "Braveheart." When Mr. Rogan helped lead the effort to convict President Clinton in the 1999 Senate trial it was generally understood he was risking his political career. His district, once a GOP bastion, has seen its demographics change so much that Mr. Gore carried it easily with 55% of the vote.

But Mr. Rogan put up a spirited fight, and using a network of conservative admirers managed to raise $7 million from 60,000 individual supporters in all 50 states. Democrats raised an equivalent amount from Hollywood liberals and supporters of Mr. Clinton. In the end, Mr. Rogan couldn't hold on; he lost to Democrat Adam Schiff.

But Mr. Rogan's conservatism, which springs from a hardscrabble youth spent as part of a broken family that was frequently on welfare, would fit perfectly in Orange County, where his wife grew up. "If the amount of support I've been getting over the phone is real, I would have to keep my options open," Mr. Rogan told Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper.

A race between Rogan, the conservative gladiator, and Johnson, the moderate tribune, would be a battle royal in a district where Democrats are permanent political spectators. Republicans would have an interesting choice over who should represent the party in such a high-profile and wealthy district.

Who, for example, would win Arnold Schwarzenegger's support? The potential GOP candidate for governor should find Mr. Rogan's fighting spirit attractive. But Mr. Schwarzenegger styles himself a "social moderate," who steers interviewers away from discussions of his "Terminator" flicks to look at the softer side he displayed in the film "Kindergarten Cop." Mr. Schwarzenegger may have to show equal dexterity if he is to unite the warring factions in a potential Orange County special election between Messrs. Rogan and Johnson.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


03/30/01: Can the GOP capture the nation's most closely balanced district?
03/09/01: Terminated
03/06/01: Leave well enough alone
02/22/01: Forgetting our heroes
02/15/01: In 1978 Clinton got a close look at the dangers of selling forgiveness
02/12/01: Clinton owes the country an explanation --- and an appology
02/06/01: How Ronald Reagan changed America
01/16/01: Why block Ashcroft? To demoralize the GOP's most loyal voters
01/15/01: Remembering John Schmitz, a cheerful extremist
12/29/00: Why are all Dems libs pickin' on me?
Dubya's 48% mandate is different than Ford's
12/13/00: Gore would have lost any recount that passed constitutional muster
11/13/00: The People Have Spoken: Will Gore listen?
10/25/00: She's really a Dodger
09/28/00: Locking up domestic oil?
09/25/00: Hillary gives new meaning to a "woman with a past"
09/21/00: Ignore the Polls. The Campaign Isn't Over Yet

©2001, John H. Fund