Dan Walters

Opinion: California Legislature’s partisan balance a big question

With Election Day just a week away and mailed ballots already pouring into election offices, California’s biggest political unknown is the balance of power in the Legislature.

Democrats certainly will retain big legislative majorities, but it’s uncertain whether they will be the two-thirds “supermajorities” the party won in 2012.

Whether the supermajorities return or not won’t have much practical effect on what happens in the Legislature. The state budget no longer requires a two-thirds vote, and it’s very unlikely that even with supermajorities Democrats could muster near-unanimity on raising taxes or passing major constitutional amendments.

Mostly, it has to do with partisan and personal egos – bragging rights, if you will.

Democrats don’t want to cede hegemony, Republicans want to regain a smidgen of relevance and legislative leaders seek personal validation.

There are as many as eight Assembly seats in play, six now held by Democrats and two by Republicans, and the GOP would have to win four of them to hold Democrats below a 54-seat supermajority.

The battlefield expanded recently when the state Republican Party dumped big money into Jack Mobley’s challenge of first-term Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, perhaps to offset the probability of losing a Ventura County seat.

All in all, Democratic chances of keeping at least 54 of their 55 seats are fairly good, but in very low-turnout elections, strange things happen.

The Democrats’ 28-seat supermajority in the Senate was suspended when three Democratic senators were banished while facing criminal charges.

Both the election map – only half of the Senate’s 40 seats are up this year – and a low turnout give Republicans a better than 50-50 chance of picking up a net of two seats and thus erasing the supermajority, at least until the next election cycle in 2016.

It may hinge on whether Democrat Jose Solorio, a former assemblyman, or Republican Janet Nguyen, an Orange County supervisor, fills a vacancy in the Santa Ana-centered 34th Senate District. Redistricting shrank the district’s Democratic registration edge from 12 percentage points to just 5, and it’s as much an ethnic rivalry as a partisan one.

However, the San Joaquin Valley’s 14th Senate District, now held by Republican Andy Vidak, is still in play.

Vidak won the seat in a special election after a Democratic senator resigned, but with a 20-point voter registration edge, Democrats believe they should own the district and are spending heavily on Fresno Democrat Luis Chavez.

It also may be a personal challenge for the Senate’s newly installed president pro tem, Kevin de León, because Vidak’s campaign is focusing on him as well as Chavez, citing de León’s gaffe about the San Joaquin Valley that “no one lives out there in the tumbleweeds.”

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