In 2002, Democrats and Republicans agreed on a redistricting plan that was supposed to give Democrats 50 seats in the Assembly and 26 in the Senate. Things didn’t work out exactly as planned.
In the Senate, a Central Valley district was drawn to include as many Democrats as possible in hopes that former Assemblyman Rusty Areias would hold the seat for the rest of the decade. But Areias was bested by Jeff Denham for the seat after it was drawn.
In the Assembly, two Southern California seats were created in hopes of electing Democrats. But thanks in part to Gray Davis’ lackluster performance at the top of the ticket (Republican challenger Bill Simon got within 5 points of Davis during his reelection campaign, and Davis received just 47 percent of the low-turnout electorate), those two seats fell into Republican hands, with Republicans Bonnie Garcia and Shirley Horton gaining election to the Assembly.
Now, both Horton and Garcia’s seats are up for grabs. Democrats are hoping that November will bring a national tide for Democrats – not unlike what Republicans saw in 1994 across the country – that will shift those two seats, and perhaps some others, under Democratic control.
But Democrats will also have to play some defense, especially in the Central Valley seat being vacated by Assemblywoman Nicole Parra, D-Hanford. Parra has already endorsed her 2006 Republican opponent Danny Gilmore to replace her in the race against Shafter Mayor Fran Florez, continuing the blood feud between the Florez and Parra clans.
In all, there are four ‘top tier’ races out of the 80 Assembly seats up for grabs this fall. Another couple of races may turn out to be competitive if the Democratic tide manifests here in California.
In the state Senate, there are only two races that are competitive of the 20 seats up for grabs, both of which pit current or former Assemblymembers from both parties against each other.
Though there aren’t too many of them, below is a quick look at the legislative races you need to watch heading into the November elections.
Democrat Joan Buchanan vs. Republican Abram Wilson
If Republicans hold this seat and elect San Ramon Mayor Abram Wilson to the Assembly, Wilson would become the only African-American Republican to hold legislative office in California.
Wilson survived a four-way primary, polling just 280 votes more than car dealership owner Robert Rao. Judy Lloyd and Scott Kamena each pulled an additional 20 percent of the Republican vote.
Alamo school board member Joan Buchanan beat her primary challenger, Ted Ford, 2-1 in the June primary. Democrats say this is one of the party’s best chances to pick up a seat come November. The seat is currently held by termed-out Assemblyman Guy Houston, R-San Ramon.
There were about 40,000 Republican votes cast in the primary, and just over 35,000 Democratic ballots cast. But this is one of the races to watch to see if national turnout trends, and some sort of Democratic wave is coming. Democrats are optimistic that Buchanan may be able to pull some Republican votes in November. And they’re banking on the presidential election to drive more Democrats to the polls.
Consultants from both sides say the race is tight, as of now, with various polls showing each of the candidates on top. This may be one of the races where national tides drive the results of the race, and the local candidates are just along for the ride.
Buchanan has touted moderate credentials in the race, focusing on her ability to broker negotiations with teachers unions while she was on the school board.
But in many ways, it is a classic Democrat vs. Republican match-up. Wilson has endorsed the idea of a state-spending cap, while Buchanan has talked about eliminating the two-thirds budget vote requirement and raising taxes on wealthy Californians to help balance the state budget.
Look for education groups to pour money into independent expenditure committees on Buchanan’s behalf.
Democrat Fran Florez vs. Republican Danny Gilmore
While Republicans are bracing for what might be a rough year statewide, and perhaps across the country, California Republicans are holding out hope that AD 30 might be a bright spot.
Incumbent Nicole Parra, D-Hanford, faced a tough fight for her third term against retired CHP officer Danny Gilmore. But now, Parra has crossed the aisle to endorse her former Republican foe.
That may have more to do with Gilmore’s opponent, Shafter Mayor Fran Florez. Florez is the mother of Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, and the Parras and Florezes have been the California version of the Hatfields and McCoys for the better part of the decade.
Former Florez staffer Michael Rubio defeated Nicole’s father Pete Parra for a seat on the Kern County Board of Supervisors, and the two clans have tangled over numerous issues both locally and in Sacramento.
But this race will attract big money on both sides. The state Democratic Party recently cut Florez a $184,000 check, and there’s sure to be more where that came from.
If the June primary is any indication, this may be a close one. Both Florez and Gilmore ran unopposed in their parties’ primaries. Florez received 11,332 votes. Gilmore received 11,328.
Democrat Marty Block vs. Republican John McCann
Will it be a blessing or a curse that the Republican nominee in this race has a name that so closely resembles that of the GOP presidential nominee? It remains to be seen. But nobody is waiting for this race between Chula Vista Councilman John McCann and Marty Block to get expensive or nasty. It’s already gotten both.
As is the case with most races, independent expenditure money will be pivotal in this race. Trial lawyers are coming in big for Block, while the state Republican Party is already mailing hit pieces against Block on McCann’s behalf.
The state GOP has focused on “John McCann’s San Diego Values” juxtaposing those with “Marty Block’s Values,” in which everything from Hillary Clinton to San Francisco are invoked in the GOP’s effort to paint Block as out of touch with the district.
“Assembly candidate Marty Block may live in San Diego, but his values are straight from San Francisco,” the mailer states.
Meanwhile, Block’s campaign has taken a somewhat unorthodox tact, criticizing CalPERS for investing in China.
“Marty Block believes California’s tax money should create jobs for Californians,” one mailer states.
Social issues may also factor in this race. Block has opposed Proposition 8, the proposed ban on gay marriage, leading a local minister to pull his endorsement of Block.
Republicans concede this seat will be a tough one for the party to hold. But, one consultant said, as of now, “this race is a lot closer than it should be.”
Democrat Manuel Perez vs. Republican Gary Jeandron
Bonnie Garcia has confounded Democrats, winning this Coachella Valley seat three times, even though it was envisioned as a Democratic seat. After a contested primary, Democrats have finally rallied around school board member Manuel Perez, in what might be one of the party’s best chances for a pick-up this fall.
Standing in his way is Gary Jeandron, a former Palm Springs police chief. A recent poll shows Jeandron with a 6-point lead in the race, but Perez’s campaign discounted the survey as a &ldquo
;push poll” and insists this remains a race primed for a Democratic pick-up.
The two have engaged in a pledge war, with Jeandron signing a “no new taxes” pledge, and Perez signing a “no new borrowing” pledge.
But spending is rampant in the campaign itself. Records show spending on the seat has already topped $1.5 million, and that’s sure to go up between now and Election Day.
Other races to watch:
Just how many races are in play depends on the fate of the above races. Democrats are threatening to spend money in a few other places, including on behalf of attorney Alyson Huber against Lodi Mayor Jack Sieglock in the Sacramento-area 10th District. The 10th has long been on the Democratic hit list, ever since Debra Gravert came closer than many expected against Anthony Pescetti in 1998. But Democrats have been unable to break through here. Still, rumors abound that labor unions are considering a large IE on Huber’s behalf, despite some apparent GOP advantages in the race.
Other races to watch include the 26th District, where Democrat John Eisenhut and Republican Bill Berryhill, brother of Assemblyman Tom Berryhill, are facing off to replace Greg Aghazarian. Republicans have many advantages in the district. And if Democrats do spend money here, it may be part of a plan to force Republicans to dedicate resources here, in hopes of drawing down available funds for other battleground races. Democrats have a large money advantage statewide, and can afford to spend some money here, if they choose.
Democrats are also talking about spending money against Audra Strickland, who is facing off against Ferial Masry for the third time. While Masry has been beaten soundly by Strickland twice before, Democrats view spending money against Strickland here as part of a coordinated campaign to hurt Strickland’s husband, Tony, who is locked in a highly competitive race for state Senate.
Republican Greg Aghazarian vs. Democrat Lois Wolk
Because this district incorporates part of the Central Valley, it is perennially on the Republican target list. But the last round of map making made sure to include liberal parts of Yolo County, including the People’s Republic of Davis, in this Senate seat, making it impossible for Republicans to break through.
Four years ago, Republicans ran Modesto Mayor Gary Podesta against Sen. Mike Machado, D-Linden. Machado, who is viewed as one of the Senate’s more moderate members, defeated Podesta, 53-47.
This time around, Assemblywoman Lois Wolk is squaring off against Republican Greg Aghazarian. Wolk, a former Yolo County supervisor, is arguably more liberal than Machado. But judging by Aghazarian’s campaign message, in which he goes out of his way to stress bipartisanship and does not mention his own party affiliation, Aghazarian does not seem convinced that strong GOP credentials are a ticket to the Senate.
Republican Tony Strickland vs. Democrat Hannah-Beth Jackson
If there was a big loser in the 2002 redraw it was then Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson. Jackson had a rocky relationship with the Senate leader at the time, John Burton, D-San Francisco, and paid the price during the last round of map-making.
As part of the deal between Burton and Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte, R-Rancho Cucamonga, Jackson found herself drawn out of the Senate map. Santa Barbara was folded into the Ventura County and Northern Los Angeles County district represented by Republican Tom McClintock, a lion of the local conservative movement before he relocated to northern California to run for Congress.
But now that the seat is open, Jackson is back. And without a popular incumbent with McClintock’s name identification, the race for the 19th Senate District is the one to watch in November.
Running against Jackson is former Assemblyman and McClintock protégé Tony Strickland. Strickland, whose wife Audra succeeded him in the Assembly, is seeking to follow in the footsteps of George Runner, R-Lancaster, who also handed his Assembly seat off to his wife before being elected to the Senate.
The district itself is one of the few truly competitive districts in the state. Liberal parts of Santa Barbara have been melded in with the core conservative areas of Ventura, and the northeastern end of the San Fernando Valley.
The result is a highly competitive, and nasty race, pitting two lawmakers who have each represented part of the district against each other. Strickland has tagged his opponent as Taxin’ Jackson, in an effort to paint her as too liberal for this somewhat ideologically schizophrenic district.
Jackson is hoping her base in Santa Barbara will be enough to carry her through, and is counting on support from the very Senate caucus that shunned her during the last round of map-making. That support will be there in spades, as both Sens. Don Perata and Darrell Steinberg have trained on Jackson as their top priority for the fall.
The race is at the top of the priority list of both Senate caucuses, and is expected to cost millions.