The Democrats' quest to regain their supermajority in the state Senate could be decided next month in an ethnically diverse section of Orange County and a large swath of farmland and rural towns about 300 miles away in the Central Valley.
Those two battlegrounds have drawn much of the attention and money of both major parties as the Nov. 4 election approaches. The races are the only two so far in which Gov. Jerry Brown has intervened with broadcast ads for the Democratic candidates.
The dominant party is now two seats short of the two-thirds supermajority it won in the Senate in 2012 but lost amid corruption scandals this year. Victory in the Orange County and Central Valley districts is essential for the Democrats if they are to recapture the power to raise taxes, place propositions on the state ballot and override gubernatorial vetoes without GOP votes.
"If Republicans can win both of those seats, it will be seen as their first step back toward political relevance in California," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "But if Democrats get the supermajority back, it's difficult to see California becoming a two-party state again any time in the near future."
Schnur doesn't see moderate Democrats in swing districts voting for tax increases even with a supermajority. Even so, the Orange County candidate, former Democratic Assemblyman Jose Solorio of Santa Ana, has been battered on the subject by his GOP opponent, Janet Nguyen.
Her television and mail ads quote the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. as calling Solorio "one of the greatest threats to Proposition 13 on this year's ballot."
Nguyen, 38, says Solorio's election could give Democrats the legislative clout they need to put an initiative before voters to repeal all or part of the 1978 law that limited property taxes.
"They can do away with Proposition 13," she said in an interview. Her message to voters, she said, is, "Let me stop that from happening."
The governor has stepped up to defend Solorio, a 44-year-old college district trustee, on the issue in the 34th Senate District.
"He voted to protect Proposition 13 and keep taxes down," Brown says in one ad. "Jose Solorio was one of my closest allies in stopping out-of-control spending. He is someone I need in Sacramento."
The seat is held by Democratic Sen. Lou Correa of Santa Ana, who is forced out by term limits. This is the first test of a redrawn district that gives Democrats only a slight edge in voter registration (not all Senate seats were on the ballot when new voting maps were drawn in 2011).
Nguyen, a Garden Grove resident who sits on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, stunned political handicappers in the June primary by garnering 51.5% of the vote, compared with Solorio's 34%.
That surprise brought a wave of financial help from public and private employee unions and the state Democratic Party, which has given Solorio a slight fundraising advantage during the last three months — though both candidates reported about $220,000 in the bank on Sept. 30, the end of the latest campaign filing period.
Nguyen, who has worked in her family restaurant business, has drawn heavy support from the Republican Party, businesses and Vietnamese Americans.
The contest has drawn $2.5 million in spending by campaign committees independent of the candidates — by far the most of any legislative race in the state. Real estate and dental trade organizations are opposing Solorio and public employee groups are campaigning in his favor.
Solorio, president of the Rancho Santiago Community College District Board and owner of a marketing firm, is touting his six years' experience in the state Assembly ending in 2012.
"I know from talking to countless voters at their doorstep that they like the reform work I have done in Sacramento, including budget reform, pension reform and workers' compensation reform," Solorio said.
In the Central Valley contest, Sen. Andy Vidak (R-Hanford) is being challenged by Fresno School Board member Luis Chavez, a Democrat. The well-funded race has focused not only on the area's economic woes but also on criminal scandals in Sacramento and a verbal gaffe by a Democratic leader.
Vidak received 62% of the vote to Chavez's 38% in the primary, even though Democrats have a 20-percentage-point lead in voter registration.
A cherry farmer before he won a special election last year, Vidak, 49, cites his work as a coauthor of Proposition 1, the water bond measure on the Nov. 4 ballot, and his opposition to the high-speed rail project championed by Brown. Vidak says it's a waste of money.
"Sen. Vidak should be reelected because he has proven he's an independent-minded leader and he has worked with all political parties to help folks in the Central Valley," said Steve Presson, a campaign spokesman, who said the senator was unavailable for interviews.
Chavez, 35, has television ads calling Vidak "Just another Sacramento politician" and criticizing him for voting against bills, now law, that will raise the minimum wage and give California workers at least three paid sick days per year. Vidak said both measures would hurt small businesses.
"Our message has been really focusing on pocketbook issues here in the valley," Chavez said in an interview. "Jobs is a big issue. One of the things I've seen as I have gone from town to town is the negative effects of the drought and recession."
He also said residents of the 14th Senate District need better access to healthcare and vocational training.
On the subject of high-speed rail, Chavez said he accepts that the bullet-train system is going to be built, "but we have to make sure that the rail authority does a better job of working with the local governments."
Local officials have challenged the financing of the project and voiced concerns about the environmental and economic effect of putting rail lines through communities and farms.
For his part, Vidak has seized on a series of scandals involving criminal charges filed against three Democratic senators, along with a throwaway comment made in June by new Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles). Talking about high-speed rail, De León said of the Central Valley, "No one lives out there in the tumbleweeds."
A Vidak TV ad, showing tumbleweeds blowing through a deserted landscape, says Chavez is "tied at the hip" to De León.
Vidak's campaign has been boosted with donations from agricultural firms, the oil industry and Republican Party committees. Chavez acquired a substantial fundraising lead, thanks to support from public and private labor groups and county Democratic Party committees, and has a slight edge in money still left in his campaign account.
Labor groups also have launched an independent campaign for Chavez, while Realtors and dental businesses are spending money separately in support of Vidak.
The flood of money guarantees that voters from Bakersfield to Fresno will be bombarded with attack ads on television, radio and in their mailboxes from now until election day.