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GOP on way to picking up 16th District Senate seat

Two special elections viewed as make-or-break contests for the Legislature’s Democratic supermajority had something in common Tuesday night – miserable turnout.

In the southern Central Valley, the high-stakes battle for the 16th Senate District pitted Kern County Supervisor Leticia Pérez, a Democrat, against Republican Andy Vidak, a Hanford cherry farmer.

With all the precincts at least partially reporting, Vidak beat Perez by 5,833 votes. In the unofficial tally of returns, Vidak had 54 percent to Pérez’s 46 percent, although election watchers said the number may narrow as absentee, provisional and other ballots were tallied. Of more than 400,000 registered voters in the district, about 75,000 actually cast ballots, according to initial returns. Turnout currently is estimated at 25.3 percent, but the number is expected to rise when the counting is complete.

Both parties have spent millions for a position previously occupied by Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio, who abruptly vacated the Senate seat for a position with Chevron Corp. earlier this year – a move that surprised the Capitol.

Vidak’s campaign raised about $1.8 million dollars and Perez’s $2.4 million for the election, with outside groups contributing over another $1 million.

This race has been closely watched, with both campaigns eyeing the potential to signal a partisan shift in the state Legislature. A supermajority allows the ruling Democrats to approve taxes, which require a two-thirds vote, without having to negotiate with rival Republicans. A two-thirds majority in the Senate is 27 members, and 54 in the Assembly.

Vidak’s six-point victory in May’s open primary was a blow to Democrats, whose labor-voting base is weak in many farm-belt areas. Vidak was able to appeal to voters with his opposition to the high-speed rail program and backing water distribution policies favored by farmers.

Vidak will face a new test next year when he runs for a full Senate term in the newly drawn 14th district, which comprises all of Kings County and parts of Fresno, Kern and Tulare.

The shuffling makes any immediate threat to the Democratic supermajority uncertain, but clearly a bitter fight looms as Democrats hope to overcome the power of incumbency in the new district.

“We have greater financial advantage…the state Republican Party is still digging themselves out of financial holes,” said Jason Kinney, a political consultant for Senate Democrats. “Our registration numbers are increasing, and demographic trends with Latino numbers are increasingly democratic.”

Another special election was in the 52nd Assembly District representing portions of east Los Angeles County and western San Bernardino County. Among a field of nine candidates, nobody captured 50 percent of the vote needed for victory. The seat became vacant after the previous incumbent, Norma Torres, D-Montclair, won a race for the state Senate in the 32nd District.

With all 189 precincts partially reporting, a run-off in September loomed between Ontario Mayor Paul Leon, who listed no party preference, and Democrat Freddie Rodriguez, a Pomona city council member. Leon received 25.1 percent of the vote, while Rodriguez captured 21.6 percent. Absentee, provisional and other ballots also remained to be counted. OF 177,000 registered voters in the district, some 15,200 cast ballots, according to initial numbers.

The election was heavily weighted to favor a Democratic successor, with seven running under the majority party’s ticket, only one Republican candidate, Dorothy Pineda, and Leon who’s now registered as no party preference.

But there was also a major three-way split in this election’s Democratic support.

Manuel Saucedo had the endorsement of former Congressman Joe Baca, Danielle Soto had Representative Gloria Negrete McLeod’s support —who held the 52nd seat prior to Sen. Torres — and Torres endorsed Freddie Rodriguez.

Rodriguez received the state Democratic Party’s endorsement, which injected $139,000 in the final days of a campaign that also received more than $100,000 in independent expenditures.

A Vidak win, assuming it holds, puts the 40-member Senate partisan lineup at 27 Democrats, 12 Repubicans and one vacancy. The vacancy was created by the resignation of Curren Price, a Democrat who went to the L.A. City Council.

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