BAKERSFIELD (AP) — A special election for a state legislative seat in the middle of summer would typically draw low interest and low turnout, but the race between a cherry farmer and a county supervisor in the southern San Joaquin Valley has become as hot as the sweltering farm fields the two are competing to represent.
The special election runoff for the 16th Senate District has attracted millions of dollars in outside spending and a major push by both parties to court voters in a race each sees as critical to their standing in the state Legislature.
Residents of the agricultural community can hardly miss the negative ads running in both English and Spanish. One mailer said the Democratic candidate served as a defense attorney for a man “who tortured a dog by duct taping her mouth shut, spraying bleach in her eyes and hitting her in the mouth with a golf club.”
Both sides say the race between Republican cherry farmer Andy Vidak and his Democratic opponent, Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez, is neck-and-neck heading into Tuesday’s special election.
“The stakes are fairly high,” said Jason Kinney, a political consultant for Senate Democrats.
The seat is one of the critical posts Democrats would like to retain in order to lock in their supermajority status in the Senate for the rest of the decade. But Republicans, who have suffered a string of statewide election losses, view it as an opportunity to block the majority party’s dominance and regain lost ground.
“A healthy California demands a competitive two-party system,” said California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte. “Wherever you look, not only in the country but in the world, where one political party has overwhelming domination, things tend not to get better. Things tend to get worse.”
Democrats won two-thirds majorities in both legislative chambers in November. That was the first time since 1933, when Republicans did the same, that one party has held simultaneous supermajorities in the Assembly and Senate.
The threshold allows the majority party to raise taxes, pass emergency legislation, override gubernatorial vetoes and put constitutional amendments before voters without Republican support.
If Republican Vidak wins the seat, Senate Democrats will still maintain their supermajority for this year but could see their power chipped away in several contested campaigns in 2014. The party currently holds 27 seats in the 40-member chamber, the minimum for supermajority status.
The winner of Tuesday’s race will have to be ready to run again in 2014 for a full Senate term under different district boundaries that are more favorable for the GOP. The new 14th Senate District was drawn by the state’s independent redistricting commission in 2011 and will encompass all of Kings County and parts of Fresno, Kern and Tulare counties.
According to the California TargetBook, which handicaps legislative and congressional races, Democrats have a large registration advantage in the special election — 51 percent compared to Republicans’ 29 percent and 17 percent who have no party preference. But voter registration in the new district narrows the gap slightly to 48 percent Democratic, 31 percent Republican and 17 percent with no party preference.
“It will be a nice shot in the arm if Republicans win, but all things being equal, this race should have been over before it began,” Brulte said.
Providing hope for Republicans is the composition of the Democrats in the Central Valley, a group that tends to be more conservative than the Democratic clusters along the coast. The population is largely Latino, Catholic and focused on agriculture.
Neither candidate reached a simple majority of votes during the May special primary election, forcing the runoff. The seat opened earlier this year when Democrat Michael Rubio of Bakersfield resigned from the Senate to take a job in the capital with Chevron.
Vidak, 47, received 49.8 percent and Perez, 36, finished second with 43.9 percent. She had initially conceded defeat but was buoyed by late mail-in and provisional ballots. Just 22 percent of registered voters turned out for the primary, 76 percent of whom voted by mail.
Both campaigns are projecting a higher turnout in the runoff, and party support has been pouring in for both candidates. Perez has raised $2.1 million this year through last week while Vidak’s campaign says it has raised $1.9 million in the same period.
“This is an important district in an important part of the state, and Democrats would like to strengthen our majority,” said Kinney, the Democratic consultant. “Given the extraordinary campaign Supervisor Perez is running, we have every hope and confidence that that’s going to happen.”
GOP consultant Matt Rexroad said Republicans have an opportunity to improve morale within the party after losing the presidential and gubernatorial races in California.
Outside funding also has come from labor unions and casino-operating tribes, which have supplied millions of dollars through independent expenditure committees in support of Perez. Since July 1, she has benefited from mailers, radio buys and Facebook ads.
Meanwhile, the California Association of Realtors has spent more than $818,000 as of Thursday to support Vidak through its own independent expenditure committee. In May, Senate Democrats used their supermajority power to approve a bill, SB391, that placed a $75 fee on some real estate transactions to fund affordable housing programs.