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At KOCE-TV on the Golden West College campus, Tran entered the studio first for a debate. The Republican state assemblyman from Little Saigon took his seat onstage and smiled uncomfortably at dozens of reporters who’d swarmed his arrival. An aide—trapped in the media frenzy—signaled with his hand for Tran to fix his tie, which had shifted slightly off-center. The candidate quickly obliged, returned his stare to the bank of photographers snapping his picture and sighed heavily.
To say there was plenty at stake would have been an understatement. This would be the only debate in the fight for the 47th Congressional District, the lone portion of Orange County willing to send a Democrat to Congress. That fact had riled local Republicans, who last held the seat 14 years go and have been surprisingly impotent to do anything about it until the emergence of Tran.
Now, this affable, soft-spoken, 46-year-old Vietnam War refugee from Saigon was on the verge of returning not just the district to Republican hands, but also, at least in pre-election rhetoric, single-handedly altering power in the nation’s capital. Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele had only ratcheted up the pressure. He was hailing Tran as the necessary 39th GOP election victory to give Republicans control over the House of Representatives during the final two years of President Barack Obama’s term.
Of course, for Sanchez, the stakes were equally high when she entered the studio wearing a red-and-yellow outfit—perhaps symbolizing her ties to elderly, local Vietnamese Americans who still defiantly wave the yellow-and-red-striped flag of South Vietnam, now 35 years gone. For months, she’d ignored Tran’s demand for four debates but, with polling showing her vulnerability, recently agreed to one. Tran says he believes “she has been in denial” about his dramatic rise in pre-election polls.
But given the political climate, Sanchez’s hesitation was understandable. Nancy Pelosi’s reign as Speaker of the House could rest in her hands. Just-passed Democratic laws important to Obama might be overturned.
With her obviously protective boyfriend close by, the 50-year-old divorced congresswoman left the studio’s make-up room and took her seat opposite Tran, who is married with two young children. Her back was vertical, her shoulders thrust backward, and her head cocked so that her chin projected out. It was the pose of a confident incumbent.
“Thank you, everybody out there!” a waving Sanchez shouted at the media.
If there was any chance Tran would let the weighty scene overwhelm him, it ended quickly when a make-up artist entered the set stage to carefully re-apply what seemed to be perfect makeup to Sanchez’s lips and another woman with a brush fussed over her hairdo. Tran, alone except for a stack of notes, stole several quick glances at the pampering. One of his campaign themes—that Sanchez had become an elitist, out-of-touch politician—was visibly playing out before his eyes.
If Tran needed more motivation, Sanchez supplied it in her opening remarks by relying on a TelePrompTer. Reading 90 seconds of scrolling prepared text, she spoke passionately of local residents (including a truck driver) who’d come to respect her service, called herself a fighter and portrayed the election as a referendum on sane Democratic accomplishments as opposed to disastrous years under President George W. Bush. She promised that her top priority was job creation.
I’ve seen rookie congressional candidates freeze around TV cameras. But when it was his turn to speak, Tran pounced. “I don’t need a TelePrompTer to share my message,” he said. “Right now, the future of our country is at stake. . . . People are hurting. . . . Talk is cheap.”
(In recent days, Tran told me, “It’s not hard running against Loretta—her negative ratings, especially among Caucasians, are really high; most voters have a favorable view of me personally, even if they don’t share all of my political views.”)
Back at the debate, Sanchez went on to score points about bringing federal dollars to OC, championing democracy in Vietnam, improving educational opportunities, pushing for tax cuts for the middle class, winning health-care and consumer reforms, crafting important Homeland Security and Pentagon policies, and fighting against Wall Street bailouts.
Tran espoused traditional conservative stances for lower taxes and less regulation as well as, in a shot at Sanchez’s penchant for the flamboyant, promising to always conduct himself in ways that won’t embarrass the blue-collar, immigrant-heavy district. After an hour of debating, he had done what he’d needed to do. He’d stood up to Sanchez. He’d lectured her—never rudely, but forcefully enough to put her on the defensive several times. While avoiding any major blunders, he gained confidence as the debate proceeded.
When it was over, Sanchez’s campaign declared victory. Yet, before leaving the TV studio, a jubilant Tran seemed to sense the boost in his stature. “I feel very, very good,” he told reporters, even feeling feisty enough to argue with a local blogger he feels routinely slights him.
Sanchez knows about being slighted, too. OC Republicans have badmouthed her as a mental lightweight ever since she did the impossible from obscurity (and after switching from Republican to Democrat) in 1996: She defeated Tran’s colorful then-boss, Congressman Robert K. Dornan, a giant national figure in conservative politics and a man who viewed campaigns as combat.
Two years later, a scrappy Sanchez proved her win wasn’t a fluke (or the result of some imaginary, illegal-alien-voting scheme) by trouncing Dornan in a rematch. Afterward, Republicans—who rarely risk losing any of the other five local congressional seats—sent a series of fifth-rate opponents to challenge her and, oddly, made sure they had no chance by depriving them of campaign contributions. The results were laughable, with Sanchez routinely grabbing sizable chucks of Republican votes. Her popularity fueled talk of her running for governor someday.
But while Sanchez dreamed of future titles, local GOP strategists plotted a long-range plan to end her public career. They employed Red County, a blog that shills for the party, to habitually belittle Sanchez’s character. They used private investigators to spy on her personal activities in hopes of uncovering dirt, party sources have told me. And, as I’ve previously reported, they even enlisted a GOP loyalist at Southern California Edison to monitor energy consumption in her residence as a way to prove she didn’t like to come home when Congress was out of session.
The GOP kingmakers also had to patiently wait for the grooming process to play out for their hand-picked Sanchez-slayer: Tran, who’d proven himself to be, if nothing more early on, an intelligent, loyal party activist who went to the state Assembly in Sacramento to fill his empty résumé. Meanwhile, Republicans have had to endure 14 years of Sanchez: the unnerving giggle, the Playboy-mansion controversies, the annual borderline-risqué holiday cards, the liberal stances on social issues.
Sanchez’s vivacious personality doesn’t easily reveal panic. But Tran’s threat must be real, even if TheNew York Times has predicted her victory. On Oct. 15, she enlisted the aid of Bill Clinton; the ex-president isn’t just immensely popular in Santa Ana and among the working poor of the district, but he is also arguably unmatched at producing the political theatrics necessary to increase turnout in the Democratic base and often-idle local Latino voters. (According to conventional wisdom, a suppressed Latino turnout coupled with heavy Vietnamese participation on Election Day could result in a Tran victory.)
Clinton warmly hugged Sanchez, called her his friend, nodded in agreement with her speech, championed her work in Congress and fired up the crowd.
Tran produced his own theatrics on Oct. 16, bringing Sarah Palin to Anaheim for his own get-out-the-vote rally. Palin didn’t talk much about him or hug him, but the event, 17 days before the election, produced Tran’s best red-meat speech.
“Are we ready to take back America?” he asked. “Are we ready to save America? Are you ready to say no and repeal Obamacare? Are you ready to vote no on higher taxes? . . . We are standing on ground zero, where Loretta Sanchez has represented us for 14 years. She has passed only one bill. She named a post office.”
An earlier version of Tran might have stepped on his coming punch line and prematurely ended the crowd’s deafening chorus of boos for Sanchez. This Tran, however, paused to appreciate the noise that could propel him into the history books. To the delight of the audience, he said, “A post office that was not even in her district!”
He waited for the line to sink in, and then asked, “Are you ready to fire her?”
We’ll see how Orange County answers.