Democrats fail to capitalize on Obama surge

If there is a bit of solace for Republicans in California, it may be that the political storm, while punishing, wasn’t quite as bad as it could have been.

In the days before Election Day, Democrats had begun to speak more confidently about the prospect of picking up seats in the state Assembly, with some talking about getting close to a 54-vote, two-thirds majority in the lower house.

But just as the national Obama victory did not lead to the super Congressional majorities Democrats had hoped for, Obama’s decisive California victory was similarly without coattails. Democrats did make some key legislative gains – mostly in seats that were originally designed for Democrats back in 2001 – but Republicans are breathing a small sign of relief.

“We’re trying to see if we can hold the tsunami at the Sierras,” said Hector Barajas, spokesman for the California Republican Party.

“The way this particular cycle has been going, Democrats should be running the table on us.” In fact, Republicans held off Democratic challenges in many seats, and even won back a GOP seat for the 30th Assembly District in Bakersfield. In the state Senate, it looks like the race between Democrat Hannah-Beth Jackson and Republican Tony Strickland may be headed to overtime.

This was the one true competitive Senate race, and everyone expected it to be a nail-biter. As of this writing, just 108 votes separated the two candidates out of more than 300,000 cast, with Jackson clinging to a small lead. The precinct vote has been fully tabulated, and the count of late-absentee and provisional ballots is under way. In the Congressional races, some Democrats salivated openly about the prospects of picking up seats in California.

While Democratic incumbent Jerry McNerny beat back a challenge from Republican Dean Andal with relative ease, Sen. Tom McClintock clung to a small lead over Democrat Charlie Brown. Meanwhile, long-shot Democratic hopes of knocking off Republican incumbents like Mary Bono-Mack, Dana Rohrbacker or Brian Bilbray never materialized.

So, as bad a night as Tuesday was for Republicans, in many ways it could have been much worse. Below is a look at some of the state’s most competitive legislative races, and how they played out on Election Night. Democratic Pick Ups Democrats were able to take back three seats that they thought they would have had in their column after the 2001 electoral redraw.

But the flood of new voters in California and Barack Obama’s 24-point win over John McCain in the state did not translate all the way down the ballot. AD 15 Joan Buchanan vs. Abram Wilson Democrat Joan Buchanan’s defeat of San Ramon Mayor Abram Wilson signifies the end of Republican representation in the East Bay. Two years ago, Richard Pombo lost the last congressional seat that held portions of Contra Costa County. And Buchanan’s victory in this seat, which stretches east through the Delta and into the Central Valley, means the seat now held by Guy Houston is back in Democratic hands.

Buchanan, a San Ramon school board member, received a big boost from the California Teachers Association and other education groups in this race, stymieing Wilson’s attempt to become just the second African American Republican to serve in the state Assembly. This race was expensive and nasty, with Wilson hitting Buchanan for everything from supporting a peripheral canal to blasting her association with labor unions and “oil companies,” in his mail and radio spots. AD 78 Marty Block vs. John McCann This Chula Vista-area seat has been on Democrats wish list ever since Republican Shirley Horton upset former Gray Davis staffer Vince Hall here in 2002. Last night, the seat came back into Democratic hands as Marty Block defeated Chula Vista councilman John McCann, who fared much better than the man whose similar name also appeared on the ballot in California Tuesday.

The fight which resulted in the election of Block, an attorney and community college board trustee, followed some classic Capitol fissures. Trial attorneys came in big for Block, while a host of business groups and the California Medical Association spent money on McCann’s behalf, updating and maintaining the doctor vs. lawyer rivalry in the Capitol. AD 80 Manuel Perez vs. Gary Jeandron Democrat Manuel Perez withstood some solid hits from his Republican opponent, Gary Jeandron, to hold on for a narrow victory in this seat, currently held by Republican Bonnie Garcia. Perez’s victory is also a big victory for the Service Employees International Union, which along with other labor groups poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Perez’s campaign.

Much of that was spent in Perez’s tough, three-way Democratic primary. But despite fears that he was too liberal for this Coachella Valley seat, Perez held on for a narrow victory Tuesday. In all, more than $1.5 million was spent by independent expenditure committees on the race. Jeandron, a former Palm Springs police chief, ultimately could not withstand Democrats’ 7-point registration advantage in the district, which is also heavily Latino.

Republican’s Pick-up AD 30 Danny Gilmore vs. Fran Florez This was, perhaps, the best piece of news for Republicans on Election Night. After a fierce, divisive battle, one in which Democrat Nicole Parra crossed party lines to endorse a Republican, Danny Gilmore took Parra’s old seat back for the GOP. Gilmore survived a bitter race with Democrat Fran Florez, mother of Democratic state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter. For Gilmore, it is his second run at the job, losing two years ago to Parra. Fran Florez received help from her son in the race, both financially and personally. Much of Florez’s mail featured the mother-son team pictured together, with Dean Florez accusing Gilmore, in two languages, of “attacking my mother.” Democrats were optimistic that a familiar name on the ballot, and a large Democratic tide, would carry them over the top in this district, but to no avail. Republican Holds AD 10 Jack Sieglock vs. Alyson Huber After years of looking at a possible pick-up in this district, Democrats eliminated a four-point GOP registration advantage from 2006 in this Sacramento-area district, that stretches all the way down to Lodi. And in a strong Democratic year, many thought this was the time for Democrats to make their move. They had the candidate they wanted in Alyson Huber, a lawyer, Lodi native and mother of four who ran a campaign that emphasized her personal story. Huber received a big push from SEIU, but looks to have come up just short. Former Lodi Mayor Jack Sieglock came through a competitive three-way primary this spring to make his way to what was expected to be a much easier race. But Sieglock found himself locked in a tough battle, and dumped $20,000 of his own money into his own campaign in the final days. Sieglock clings to a 1,000 vote lead – less than 1 percent – out of more than 150,000 cast, a lead that is likely to withstand any late-counted provisional or absentee ballots, and bring Sieglock to the Assembly. AD 37 Audra Strickland vs. Ferial Masry For the third straight election, Republican Audra Strickland defeated Democrat Ferial Masry, who failed again to become the first Muslim woman elected to the Legislature.

This race came onto the Democratic radar this year in part because of the overlap with the competitive Senate race, which pitted Strickland’s husband, Tony, against Democrat Hannah-Beth Jackson. Much of the Democratic messaging in this race sought to link Audra and Tony Strickland, painting them both as “corrupt” politicians. In the end, Strickland clung to a 4,000 vote lead out of more than 140,000 cast in race. AD 38 Bill Berryhill vs. John Eisenhut This was another race that, on paper, did not look good for Democrats, but was one they thought they could sneak by
in a big Democratic year nationally. But Bill Berryhill, brother of Assemblyman Tom Berryhill, will join his brother in the Assembly next month. Eisenhut, a decorated Vietnam veteran, came close, and ran another strongly biographical campaign.

But a Republican registration advantage, and the underlying conservative nature of the Central Valley, proved too much for the Democrat to overcome.

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