SACRAMENTO (AP) — Independently drawn political boundaries and a new way of electing lawmakers are expected to change the face of the California Legislature and could bring Democrats total control of the state Senate.
The process begins with the June 5 primary, when California's top-two primary system gets its first widespread use. Under the system approved by voters in 2010, only the top two vote-getters will advance to the November general election, even if they are from the same political party.
That is expected to force nearly two dozen same-party candidates to compete against each other in the fall campaign.
The new primary system and legislative maps drawn for the first time by an independent citizens redistricting commission are changing the political calculus for recruiting candidates and running campaigns, particularly for the state Senate.
Republicans went from 13 Senate seats considered safe, with a majority of GOP voters, down to 11 safe ones. The party then lost multiple court challenges and a bid to prevent the new district maps from being used in this election season.
Republicans currently hold 15 seats in the 40-member Senate.
Democrats need two additional senators to reach a two-thirds majority. With 27 Democrats in the Senate, they would no longer need Republican support to approve tax increases, pass emergency legislation, reject the governor's vetoes or change Senate rules. But Assembly Democrats are expected to fall short of the two-thirds majority, leaving minority Republicans with more power there to block decisions requiring a supermajority.
"We think we have a great opportunity," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. "It would, I think, make it much easier to govern the state and of course be held accountable for our decisions."
Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, said Republicans are emphasizing in every contested district that voters should not hand one party unbridled control of the Legislature.
"That makes it a game-changer. It's not whether a particular Democrat opponent is a good person or not. It's the dynamics of the Senate that change, which is the overarching issue," Huff said.
The battle for ultimate control of the Senate is likely to be decided in just four of the 20 districts up for election this year, but there are significant primary contests in only two of those.
Steinberg personally intervened to dissuade Democratic challengers from entering three other races. He and most of his fellow Senate Democrats also are taking the unusual step of opposing the California Democratic Party's endorsed candidate in the open 31st Senate District seat in Riverside County.
The party is backing former Assemblyman Steve Clute, who served in that chamber from 1982-92. Steinberg favors attorney Richard Roth, a retired Air Force general whose wife is president and chief executive of the Greater Riverside Chambers of Commerce.
Democrats have just a 3-point edge in voter registration, and Republican Assemblyman Jeff Miller of Corona is expected to face either Clute or Roth in November.
Republicans have the other major primary contest in the Central Valley's open 5th Senate District, which includes parts of Sacramento, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties.
Huff and many other Republican legislators are backing GOP Assemblyman Bill Berryhill of Ceres, but San Joaquin County Supervisor Leroy Ornellas of Tracy has significant local endorsements and substantial campaign funding. The survivor is expected to face termed-out Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Livingston, in November in a district in which Democrats have a voter registration edge of less than 2 percentage points.
The other two big November contests are expected to be in the 27th Senate District, where Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, and GOP challenger Todd Zink are the only candidates on the ballot in June and November; and the 39th Senate District, where Democratic Assemblyman Marty Block of San Diego and former Republican Assemblyman George Plescia of La Jolla, are expected to face each other in November.
Other Senate primary contests are not expected to affect whether Democrats take total control of the upper chamber.
Three Democrats are running in the solidly Democratic 13th Senate District, including Assemblyman Jerry Hill of San Mateo and former Assemblywoman Sally Lieber of Redwood City. The Central Coast district includes parts of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.
In the Democratic-leaning 19th Senate District in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, former Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, faces the husband of the current Assembly speaker pro tem. Jason Hodge is a firefighter from Oxnard who recently married Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco.
The 80-member Assembly will have plenty of new faces after this election season.
There are 35 Assembly seats with no incumbent, while Republican Assemblymen Tim Donnelly in San Bernardino County and Allan Mansoor in Orange County are among incumbents facing same-party challengers.
"We could have up to half the state Assembly being nothing but freshmen," said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which analyzes legislative and congressional campaigns.
He estimated the June primary could set up four same-party Senate runoffs in November and as many as 22 in the Assembly — 16 between Democrats and six between Republicans.
Among the most high-profile Assembly candidates is Michael Breyer, son of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. He is one of three Democrats running for an open seat in the majority Democratic 19th Assembly District in San Francisco and San Mateo counties. He faces San Francisco Assessor Phil Ting and James Pan, an employee in the assessor's office.
Patricia McKeon, wife of U.S. Rep. Buck McKeon, is vying with a former aide to the congressman for the open 38th Assembly District seat in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The intraparty standoff is splitting support among local Republican officials between McKeon, of Santa Clarita, and former congressional aide Scott Wilk of Valencia.
Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon is running for the open 39th Assembly District seat in the San Fernando Valley as he awaits trial on 18 state charges of perjury, voter fraud and filing a false declaration of candidacy stemming from allegations he lived outside his council district. Alarcon, who previously served in the Senate and Assembly, faces former Democratic Assembly aide Raul Bocanegra, who had raised the most money going into the primary.
Assemblyman Charles Calderon, D-Whittier, is termed out of office but could be succeeded by his son, Ian Charles Calderon, to continue the 30-year Calderon political dynasty into a second generation. Former Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez, D-Norwalk, has the state party's endorsement over the younger Calderon as he seeks to return to political office in Los Angeles County's open 57th Assembly District.
Ian Calderon's uncle, former Assemblyman Tom Calderon, is one of five Democrats running for an open seat in the neighboring majority Democrat 58th Assembly District. Another uncle, state Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Monterey Park, defeated Bermudez six years ago on his way to winning the Senate seat he will give up in 2014 due to term limits.