A trio of Democratic lawmakers, suspended from their posts and facing possible jail time on criminal charges, are star attractions in legislative races across California even though they're not running for reelection.
Republicans are using the allegations — perjury, bribery, conspiracy — in an attempt to taint their rivals, hoping to prevail in swing districts in the June 3 primary election and to shatter the dominant party's hopes of regaining a powerful supermajority lost to the suspensions.
Republican state Senate candidate Jeff Stone, a Riverside County supervisor, features corruption in a television ad against one of his GOP rivals, Bonnie Garcia, a former assemblywoman, although she is not implicated in the scandals.
"Corrupt senators. FBI raids. Government out of control. Special interests in control," the ad says. "It's time to drain the Sacramento swamp."
The specter of crooked politicians has also surfaced in contests in the San Gabriel Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area and other locales — a noticeable shift from earlier this year, when issues such as fracking and the proposed bullet train dominated campaigns.
That was before the sensational federal indictment of Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) in late March, on charges of accepting donations in return for favors and offering to arrange the sale of machine guns and shoulder-fired missiles to an undercover FBI agent posing as a mob figure.
The Yee case broke after Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) was indicted on federal bribery charges and Democrat Sen. Roderick Wright was convicted of lying about living in his Inglewood district.
Now, campaign consultants say their polls show corruption ranks higher than normal as a concern for voters. And candidates are trying to capitalize on that.
Corruption is "a big issue," said Downey Mayor Mario Guerra, a GOP candidate in a Senate district redrawn in 2011 from the area represented by Calderon.
Guerra is running against four Democrats. He has sent out mail ads declaring, "The amount of corruption in our government is embarrassing," and vowing that he "will lead the fight against corrupt politicians."
Even some sitting lawmakers, running for reelection, are trying to distance themselves from the Legislature. Four incumbents declined to show Sacramento ties in their official ballot designations, instead listing their second occupations.
State Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) is on the ballot as "Rancher/Small Businessman," and his colleague Sen. Andy Vidak (R-Hanford) is "Farmer/Small Businessman." Democratic Sen. Ed Hernandez of West Covina is described as "Doctor of Optometry," and Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) is "Businessman/Broadcast Executive."
Voters will choose 100 state lawmakers this year, filling 80 Assembly seats and half of those in the Senate. In the Assembly, six posts now held by Democrats could be pick-up opportunities for the GOP, and party leaders express optimism that they can both reverse the Democrats' supermajority there and stymie their efforts to regain it in the Senate.
"It's one of our top goals," said Jim Brulte, chairman of the California Republican Party. "We think 2014 is a great year for us."
In a Northern California Assembly race, Democrat Jim Cooper, a captain in the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, is one of five candidates. He has urged voters in a mail ad to "put a cop in the Capitol."
Democrats see a chance to snag one or two GOP-held Assembly seats, and their strategists, unsurprisingly, are downplaying the potential effect of the scandals. Senate President Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), in whose upper house they occurred, noted that the competitive races "happen to be in Democratic-majority districts."
The Democrats say their advantage in voter registration and resources will help. They are 43.4% of California's registered voters; Republicans account for 28.5%. Those without a party preference make up 21%.
The state Democratic Party had $10.3 million on hand in early March, when the last comprehensive campaign money reports were filed with the state, compared to the Republican Party's $1.3 million.
In particular, Senate Democrats are targeting two seats, including Vidak's, held by Republicans in San Joaquin Valley districts where Democrats gained an edge in the last redistricting. This year is the first test for both redrawn districts.
Vidak is being challenged only by Fresno Unified School Board member and Democrat Luis Chavez, in a district where Democrats are 47% of voters and Republicans are 30%.
Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres) faces only Democratic activist Shawn K. Bagley, a produce broker from Salinas, in an area where Democrats make up 42% of voters and Republicans, 32%.
And both parties are focusing intensely on an Orange County seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Lou Correa of Santa Ana because of term limits. The district is 38% Democratic and 35% Republican.
Former Democratic Assemblyman Jose Solorio is battling there with Republican Janet Nguyen, a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, and Republican Long Pham, a former Orange County education board member.
Where Democrats are not downplaying the corruption issue, they are raising it in their own campaign messages, and slinging mud at one another.
In the Bay Area, five candidates are vying for an open Senate seat. They include Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) and former Democratic Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi of Hayward.
Wieckowski has created a website featuring a police booking photo of Hayashi, who was fined for shoplifting $2,450 worth of clothes at Neiman Marcus three years ago. The site tries to link her to Capitol corruption.
"Three State Senators arrested or convicted in three months. Now, Mary Hayashi, who is on probation for shoplifting, wants to be your next State Senator," says the site, MugshotMary.com. "Do we really need another criminal representing us in Sacramento?"
The Hayashi campaign has countered with its own searing website, alleging that Wieckowski "protected rapists" by voting against a measure, now law, preventing individuals convicted of sexually assaulting a spouse from receiving alimony after a divorce.
Hayashi's shoplifting charges "would've been a problem for her regardless of problems in state Senate," said Ben Tulchin, Wieckowski's pollster.
But he said it's a potent liability when voters, particularly those in the Bay Area reeling from the Yee scandal, are already sensitive to ethical lapses.
"It's in the air. It's in the ether. It's in the environment," he said.