A Republican state senator sailed to victory Tuesday in a special congressional election in coastal Orange County featuring a maverick, third-party candidate who sought to capitalize on growing fears of illegal immigration.
In a race that drew national attention, Sen. John Campbell (R-Irvine) held a wide lead throughout the evening, ending the night with nearly 45% of the vote. But it was Minuteman Project co-founder and first-time candidate Jim Gilchrist of the American Independent Party who drew the spotlight with his one-issue campaign.
Democrat Steve Young finished second with 28%, and Gilchrist was third with 25%. Both candidates significantly boosted their totals over the October special election, while Campbell gained just 30 more votes.
Gilchrist lost the election, but he found victory in his showing.
“This is just a start,” he said at a party Tuesday night in Lake Forest. “We’ve got a huge victory tonight because we’ve issued a wake-up call to America . . . Our cause is not over, nor is my aspiration for my political career.”
Experts said the five-person race could provide a unique opportunity to gauge the effectiveness of illegal immigration as an issue in Republican areas.
“Illegal immigration is the overwhelming issue in Orange County, and that’s why he was able to come out of nowhere, because it was the perfect issue for Gilchrist to run on,” said consultant Scott Hart, who supports Campbell.
But it wasn’t enough, he said. “As a member of Congress, you have to tackle a number of critical issues facing this country.”
Added Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University in Orange: “The share of the vote that Gilchrist receives will be watched across the nation by people like the president of the United States.”
Gilchrist, 56, a retired accountant from Aliso Viejo, upstaged the others in what would otherwise have been a routine exercise to anoint a GOP successor to former Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), now chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Gilchrist controlled the debate, focusing almost solely on illegal immigration. His views became fodder for radio and television talk shows and even a small mention in NBC’s political drama, “The West Wing.” In his television and radio ads, he suggested that his performance in the election would send a message to President Bush.
One radio spot said, “Every vote that Jim Gilchrist receives is a message to President Bush that his guest worker-amnesty program is wrong and that it’s time to secure our borders now . . . President Bush needs to hear from you, not with a phone call or a letter or an e-mail; he needs to see it at the polls.”