Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Two feuds give GOP an opening

Feuds between rival factions of Latino Democrats could give Republicans an outside chance at picking up one or even two state Senate seats in special elections this year.

There are three Senate vacancies due to resignations, and a primary election will be held next week in two of the districts, San Bernardino County's 32nd Senate District and the San Diego-centered 40th SD.

Democratic Assemblyman Ben Hueso is a shoo-in in the 40th SD, succeeding Congressman Juan Vargas.

But the 32nd SD election is a shootout between a Democratic faction headed by Gloria Negrete McLeod, who also resigned from the Senate after defeating Congressman Joe Baca last year, and Baca's loyalists.

The Negrete McLeod bloc is backing Democrat Larry Walker, San Bernardino County's auditor-controller, against Democratic Assemblywoman Norma Torres, who is considered to be a Baca acolyte.

There are two other Democrats on the March 12 ballot, along with two Republicans, and the top two vote-getters will face each other in a runoff two months later, if none wins an outright majority.

Were one of the two Republicans to make it into the runoff - a possibility in a low-turnout special election - business and GOP groups may might see the chance for an upset, particularly if the Republican survivor is Paul Leon, a Latino businessman and mayor of Ontario.

The district also happens to be home territory for the new state Republican Party chairman, Jim Brulte.

A somewhat similar situation exists in the San Joaquin Valley's 16th SD, because Kern County Democrat Michael Rubio has resigned to join Chevron Corp.

Two Latino political families, the Parras and the Florezes, have feuded for years. Rubio came from the Florez camp, having succeeding Dean Florez in the Senate seat, and two others from the Florez faction could run, either Dean Florez's mother, Fran, or Leticia Perez, a Rubio aide who succeeded him on the Kern County Board of Supervisors.

Nicole Parra, a former Democratic assemblywoman, is reportedly considering a run for the Senate.

Parra bucked her party on several issues, later switched to "decline to state" and could garner Republican and business support. And GOP leaders are seeking other potential Latino candidates who might squeak into the seat in a low-turnout election with the Parra-Florez feud dividing Democrats.

"That gives us an opportunity," Senate GOP leader Bob Huff said during a weekend party convention. "On paper, it doesn't look good. That's a 21-point Democrat advantage district, but Central Valley folks happen to be very common-sense, and they elect Republicans down there. So we'll take a look at it. We'll put our best foot forward, we'll give a run for their money and, we hope, win that election."

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.