Republican Allan Mansoor and Democrat Phu Nguyen face off in Orange County, and Republican Tim Donnelly and Democrat Darcel Woods are in contention for a district that has been a GOP stronghold.

By Jean Merl, Los Angeles Times

October 10, 2010

When legislators redrew their districts a decade ago, they nearly succeeded in heading off competitive races by making Assembly and state Senate seats safe for incumbents in both major political parties. Nearly — but not quite, as the handful of lively contests attests.

Although most of the hottest races this fall are in Northern California or the Central Valley, there are some interesting matchups in Southern California. They include one for an Assembly seat in Orange County and another in the mountain and desert communities straddling Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.

The Orange County Assembly seat is being vacated by termed-out Republican Van Tran, who is now running for Congress. A heated contest has developed between Costa Mesa Mayor Allan Mansoor, the Republican nominee, and Democratic businessman Phu Nguyen. In 2004, Tran, then a Costa Mesa city councilman, made history by becoming the first Vietnamese American elected to the Legislature.

Nguyen is hoping for a good number of votes from that group, despite its usual penchant for voting Republican.

Mansoor, a former Orange County sheriff’s deputy and the son of immigrants from Egypt and Scandinavia, has taken a strong stance against illegal immigration and is perceived as the more conservative candidate. Both have lined up long lists of endorsements from prominent leaders in their respective parties.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and state Sen. Tom Harman, both of Huntington Beach, are among Mansoor’s backers, while Nguyen has lined up Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Garden Grove and Assemblyman Jose Solorio of Santa Ana, among others.

Republicans hold a substantial registration edge over Democrats in this district–41% to 32%, with 22% of the voters unaffiliated with any party. According to the nonpartisan California Target Book, which tracks legislative and congressional races in the state, 25% of voters in 2009 were Asian American, with Vietnamese Americans accounting for 21%.

“The key voters in the race will be the district’s Vietnamese American voters,” the Target Book’s authors wrote in their latest edition. “In past elections, they have reliably voted Republican….Now the question is, will they again vote Republican, or will they vote for the candidate that comes from their community.”

A sprawling Assembly district split between Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties had long been considered a GOP stronghold that featured lively Republican primaries followed by slam-dunk general elections. But the stage was set early last year for an intriguing contest this fall.

Assemblyman Anthony Adams (R-Hesperia) angered constituents by joining with Democrats in raising taxes to break a budget stalemate last year. Following an uproar that included a recall attempt, Adams decided not to seek reelection, touching off a six-way scramble to succeed him in the Republican primary.

The narrow winner was Tim Donnelly, a businessman who founded the largest chapter in California of the Minutemen, a civilian group that advocates tougher restrictions at the border with Mexico.

Donnelly faces Democrat Darcel Woods, a Chaffey College professor with a long career in criminal justice, including service in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Orange County Probation Department and the state California Department of Corrections. She was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to the state Board of Parole Hearings in 2007, and she has a long list of endorsement from state and local officials and labor and law enforcement groups.

Donnelly, who has called for California to adopt a law similar to Arizona’s controversial immigration measure, has rallied support of conservative GOP officials and “tea party” activists in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats 43% to 34%. Those who decline to align with any party are 18% of registered voters there. American Independent Party member Robert Gosney and Libertarian Tony Tyler also are on the ballot.

In an inland Orange County Senate district, Republicans are making an uphill run to recapture a seat they lost in 1998 and narrowly missed taking back in 2006. Republicans believe they have a chance to unseat Sen. Louis Correa (D-Santa Ana), despite Democrats’ 45%-32% registration edge.

Ron Nehring, chairman of the California Republican Party, said the GOP has conducted a “very aggressive” voter registration effort in the district during the last year to boost its candidate, Anaheim City Councilwoman Lucille Kring.

Most other area races were all but over in the primaries, if not before, political observers agree.

Not even illness seems to have dampened the reelection prospects of state Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D-Long Beach), who has not attended a legislative session since her office announced in May that she had been diagnosed with an abdominal blood clot. Spokesman Ray Sotero said Oropeza has been working from home and is “getting better every day.”

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