A relative handful of voters in the San Joaquin Valley may be deciding - whether they know it or not - effective control of the state Senate.
Mail voting is already under way in the 16th Senate District and by last Friday about 20,000 ballots had already been received, perhaps a third of the eventual total, with Democratic voters slightly more numerous.
The voting ends on July 23 and will decide an expensive and increasingly heated runoff between Democrat Leticia Perez, a Kern County supervisor, and Republican rancher Andy Vidak, who came within 114 votes of winning the seat outright in May despite the district's big Democratic voter margin.
The 16th SD, running from Fresno to Bakersfield, no longer exists; the state redistricting commission replaced it with a new 14th Senate District.
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However, since Democrat Michael Rubio was elected in the old 16th SD, his resignation to become a Chevron Corp. executive triggered a special election there.
Perez and Vidak talk about such local issues as water and the bullet train, but to Capitol insiders, the real stakes are the Democrats' 29-seat Senate supermajority and their power to pass constitutional amendments and taxes.
A Vidak win would drop Democrats to 28 seats, just one over the 27 required, assuming that a Democrat fills another Senate vacancy.
However, it's also assumed in the Capitol that Republicans will pick up one, and possibly two, Senate seats in 2014, so a Perez win would preserve the supermajority even if the GOP gains two.
But more than party is involved, since a few moderate, business-friendly Democrats hold the real balance of Senate power and their ranks may thin.
The FBI is investigating the Calderon family's political dealings, dimming former Assemblyman Tom Calderon's chances of succeeding his brother, Sen. Ron Calderon of Montebello.
Meanwhile, Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, is awaiting trial on felony charges that he lied about his residence, and if convicted would have to give up his Senate seat.
It's that realpolitik situation that propels special interest groups, particularly those on either side of the tax issue, to play in the 16th Senate District.
Chevron Corp. pumped big money into Perez's primary campaign but says it's not involved in the runoff.
Unions and other pro-tax groups are stepping up for Perez while the California Association of Realtors, peeved with Democrats for passing a tax on real estate transactions for low-income housing, attacked Perez over her defense of an alleged animal abuser.
Mail voters cast 76 percent of the ballots in the May primary, and given the low turnouts of special elections - particularly one in midsummer - they will be decisive this month, which explains the extensive get-out-the-vote drives and increasingly sharp attack ads and mailers.
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