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Special Election in the O.C.

California’s second special House election of the cycle could prove to be as much of a yawner as the first, which saw Rep. Doris Matsui (D) succeed her late husband in March with 68 percent of the vote.

Within minutes after President Bush announced the nomination of Rep. Christopher Cox (R) to head the Securities and Exchange Commission last week, state Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman (R) moved to establish himself as the frontrunner in the race to replace Cox.

He has largely succeeded: Just 48 hours after Cox’s nomination, Ackerman raised about $100,000 for the as-yet-unscheduled special election. In addition, he secured endorsements from GOP Reps. Dana Rohrabacher and Ed Royce, who represent adjoining districts.

And equally significant, considering the seat has not been vacant since 1988, most of the other people who were seen as potential candidates for the Orange County district have endorsed Ackerman.

“It’s been going extremely well for him,” said Dave Gilliard, a Sacramento-based consultant for Ackerman. “It’s been a whirlwind of activity.”

But that doesn’t mean that Ackerman has the Republican nomination locked up or that the race to replace Cox won’t prove to be exciting in the end.

Former Rep. James Rogan (R) is mentioned as a possible candidate, though he is seen as unlikely to run.

“He’s the biggest wildcard out there,” said Jon Fleischman, a former executive director of the California Republican Party who is now working as a GOP consultant in Orange County.

But there could be others.

In the coastal 48th district, which includes such communities as Newport Beach, Irvine, Tustin and Laguna Beach, there are so many wealthy people that a rich political newcomer could instantly become a viable candidate simply by writing a very large check.

“Of course someone like Dick Ackerman, who is of modest means, is going to get out there early and try to line up endorsements,” Fleischman said.

Not only has Ackerman begun raising money and securing endorsements, he also dispatched a partner of Gilliard’s, Chris Wysocki, to Washington, D.C., on Monday to meet with national party leaders and officials at the National Republican Congressional Committee. Ackerman is expected to come to town later this month, as soon as his legislative schedule permits.

But despite his efforts, Ackerman, 62, a former mayor of Fullerton, is unlikely to have the field entirely to himself. And the dynamics of the race could largely be determined by the timing.

Cox will not resign his House seat until his nomination to the SEC is, as expected, confirmed by the Senate. Once the seat is officially vacant, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) would have two weeks to call a special primary election, which must be held eight or nine weeks later. If no one emerges from the all-party primary with 50 percent of the vote, the top finishers of each party advance to a special general election eight weeks later.

Most political observers believe that if Cox is confirmed by mid-July, Schwarzenegger would move quickly to ensure that a special general election would coincide with an expected statewide November special on several ballot initiatives. If not, the special could be pushed back to February 2006.

“I’ve told Sen. Ackerman that all of this activity is great, but your fate is in the hands of the U.S. Senate,” said Gilliard, whose clients include Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

Either way, most of the action should be on the Republican side in a district that gave Bush 59 percent of the vote in last year’s presidential election.

If the special election drags out, other Republican candidates besides Ackerman could be drawn to the race.

One California GOP insider, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Ackerman is a well-liked and well-respected conservative but is not considered a political superstar.

“Not that Dick’s a 10-ton giant,” the Republican said. “It’s just that a lot of people think it’s too much of a pain in the ass to run against him.”

So far, only former state Assemblywoman Marilyn Brewer (R) has taken steps toward running for the seat. Brewer, currently a board member of the Orange County Transportation Authority, is a centrist who may be too liberal for most of the district’s Republican voters.

Still, Brewer, a founding principal in a prosperous plastics manufacturing company, could be a factor if she is willing to spend her own money on the race. She did not respond to a message relayed to her Monday by the Transportation Authority staff.

Political analysts believe that Brewer’s best hope is in a crowded open primary with at least one more prominent conservative besides Ackerman. She may get her wish if Rogan enters the race.

Rogan, who was voted out of his Pasadena-area district in 2000, moved recently to Orange County and is eyeing a political comeback. But Rogan lives in Rep. Gary Miller’s (R) 42nd district, and is considered — at least at this early stage — unlikely to enter the race for Cox’s seat.

Rogan was traveling Monday and could not be reached for comment, according to Wayne Paugh, his former Congressional chief of staff who is now a colleague at the law firm Venable LLP. Rogan is now also mentioned as a possible candidate for the state Supreme Court judgeship soon to be vacated by Janice Rogers Brown, who is on her way to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Fleischman said that Rogan — given his credentials among core Republican voters from his days as a House manager during the 1998 impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton — could be formidable in Orange County.

Cox, meanwhile, is unlikely to get involved in the race to succeed him. Last year, in a heated GOP primary for the state Assembly in his Congressional district, Cox refused to endorse — even though one candidate (the ultimate victor) is married to the treasurer of Cox’s political action committee.

“I think the likelihood of Chris Cox endorsing someone is around zero,” Fleischman said. “He’s too cautious.”

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