Firewall California: Legislative Democrats look to keep wide margins in both houses

If you are looking for signs of a Democratic firewall in California, it’s not the top of the ticket you should be focusing on. While the storm clouds are gathering for national Democrats, here in California, Democrats are hoping to add to their majority in the state Assembly.

With highly gerrymandered districts, and an intense voter-registration drive in highly targeted legislative seats, Democrats seem poised to hold on to their wide majority in both legislative houses.

Polls show Assemblywoman Alyson Huber, D-El Dorado Hills, who won a narrow victory over Republican Jack Sieglock in a banner Democratic year two years ago, has opened a wide lead over Sieglock this time around. And in a Sacramento-area seat long held by Republicans, Democrat Richard Pan has raised more than $1.4 million in his race against Republican Andy Pugno, one of the authors of Proposition 8, the 2008 measure that outlawed same-sex marriage. The race between Pugno and Pan has turned into one of the most hotly contested races this year. In the last week, Democrats have moved more than $400,000 into Pan’s campaign, mostly through the state and various county Democratic Party committees.

Republicans see the race between incumbent Democrat Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, and San Ramon Mayor Abram Wilson as their best chance for a pickup this fall. That race is also a rematch of the 2008 election. More than $3.5 million was spent on the campaign in 2008.

Republicans are intimating that there may be a sleeper candidate that is not on the watchlist of most political insiders. While no Republicans wanted to tip their hands, sources indicate the caucus is looking at Tea Party candidate Nathan Mintz, who is running against Betsy Butler, a former fundraiser for the Consumer Attorneys of California in the 53rd Assembly District.

That district has been on the Republican target list in the past, but has led to nothing but expensive heartache for the caucus since Steve Kuykendall lost that seat to Betty Karnette in 1996. The district used to be a blue-collar haven, but with the erosion of the state’s aerospace industry and influx of dot-com money, the South Bay area of Los Angeles has become more reliably Democratic. Democrats hold a 42-36 percent registration advantage in the district.

But there are signs of independence in the district. The district strongly supported Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger over Phil Angelides in 2006, and Steve Poizner defeated Cruz Bustamante by 15 points in the 2006 race for insurance commissioner. Still, Barack Obama defated John McCain 62-35 here. And in the June primary, Democratic candidates received a combined total of 32,932 votes. Mintz, who ran unopposed, received just 21,792 votes.

The election could prove to be a test for Assembly Republican Leader Martin Garrick, R-Solana Beach. Garrick has tangled with the state Republican Party over fundraising, and already faced an attack on his leadership from Tulare Assemblywoman Connie Conway.

Conway ran against Garrick for the Assembly Republican Leader’s job earlier this year, and was stripped of her post as Caucus Chairwoman late last week.

Even though 2010 is shaping up as a banner Republican year, some perennial election targets seem to be off the table this year. Neither Manuel Pérez, D-Cathedral City, nor Marty Block, D-San Diego, seems to be in electoral trouble this year, even though both hold seats that were held by Republicans just four years ago.

In the Senate, Democrat Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, has received the endorsement of the California Chamber of Commerce, who is taking the unusual step of backing a Democrat in a hotly contested race in November. Correa’s strong relationship with the business community has boosted his electoral prospects against Republican Lucille Kring in what would normally be a closely watched electoral battleground.

Again, the Central Valley will receive most of the Senate election resources on both sides. Democrats had hoped that Assemblywoman Anna Caballero would be able to capture the Merced-area seat now held by Republican Jeff Denham. But Ceres Mayor Anthony Cannella, the son of former Democratic Assemblyman Sal Cannella, is mounting a strong campaign.

Another race on the watch list is Democrat Michael Rubio’s race against Republican Tim Thiesen. Rubio, who sits on the Kern County Board of Supervisors, is a former Dean Florez protégé. It was Rubio, a former Florez staffer, who ran against incumbent supervisor Pete Parra, father of former Assemblywoman Nicole Parra, thus stoking one of the most intense Democratic political family feuds in the state.

Rubio’s opponent is realtor Tim Thiesen, who bested former Republican legislator Phil Wyman in Wyman’s seemingly never-ending quest to return to Sacramento.

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