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Low turnout in this special election could hand the GOP an Assembly seat for the first time in decades

Low turnout in this special election could hand the GOP an Assembly seat for the first time in decades
Fresno City council member Clint Olivier announces his candidacy for California's 31st Assembly District outside Sam's Italian Deli and Marketlast June.(Craig Kohlruss / Fresno Bee) (Craig Kohlruss / Fresno Bee)

Voters in Fresno County could elect a Republican to the state Assembly for the first time in four decades, thanks to a surprise resignation and an unusually condensed campaign season when few may even know a contest is in play.

It's rare for Republicans to have a shot at snagging a legislative seat in California, particularly during a presidential election year that promises to elicit the sharp increase in voter attention that allows Democrats to exploit their built-in voter registration edge.

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But Tuesday's election to fill the remainder of Henry Perea's term has scrambled traditional campaign thinking.

Fresno City Councilman Clint Olivier, a Republican, is facing Democrat Joaquin Arambula, an emergency room doctor and son of a former assemblyman in a contest for a seat that has been held by Democrats since 1976.

The race is situated in the heart of the Central Valley, where water woes and agricultural issues are paramount and the effects of unemployment are still being felt. The Democrats who have run and won here are of a different mold than their Bay Area or L.A. counterparts.

Perea, who stepped down in December to take a job with the pharmaceutical industry, rose to prominence as the leader of the influential business-friendly wing of Assembly Democrats who were central to scaling back Gov. Jerry Brown's climate change proposal and stopping an effort to ban fracking.

If either Olivier or Arambula receives more than 50% of the vote Tuesday, he will fill the remaining eight months of Perea's term in Sacramento and be expected to vote on the state budget and other issues. But the presence of a third candidate, Democrat Ted Miller, who so far has not reported raising any money, could send the contest to a runoff on June 7 when the presidential race and other contests will also appear on the ballot.

The race plays into a long-held truism about California's political parties: Republican fortunes often rise when voter turnout falls.

"People say, 'That's a Democrat's seat,'" Olivier, 40, said in a recent phone interview. "The reality is that people who live [in the Central Valley] have elected common-sense Republicans who they trust to carry their stories to Sacramento, and to represent their interests and not the special interest."

An undated handout photo of Joaquin Arambula, candidate for the 31st Assembly District.
An undated handout photo of Joaquin Arambula, candidate for the 31st Assembly District. (joaquinarambula.com)

Olivier and GOP strategists point to Sen. Andy Vidak, who nearly won a majority of the vote in a 2013 special election primary with 22% turnout, and in a stunning upset, beat Democrat Leticia Perez in a runoff later that year, despite the Republicans' 20-point registration deficit in the district. Less than a third of voters turned out for that contest, and it was decided by about 3,000 votes.

Other area Republicans — Assemblyman Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres) and Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford) — also have won seats despite double-digit voter registration handicaps in their district.

Historically, the state GOP has held to a familiar pattern: make gains where possible during special elections and in statewide election years, when interest is lower, and lay low during presidential cycles to maintain Republican seats.

But with Perea's departure speeding up the time frame, "it's possible that the Republicans could pull off a surprise win because of a difference in turnout," said Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic strategist and editor of the California Target Book, which tracks races in the state.

In the end, Sragow says, the special election in the 31st Assembly District is a numbers game — and both sides are spending heavily to turn out their most dedicated voters.

Voters who show up at the polls in low-turnout elections are more likely to be older, whiter and more conservative, says Paul Mitchell, the vice president of Political Data, Inc. who analyzes voter behavior. And Republicans often exceed their voter registration numbers in these elections.

So who might prevail Tuesday? Early voting returns offer some clues.

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About 20,000 voters — or 12% of the electorate — already have submitted ballots in early voting. For comparison, only about 33,000 turned out to vote in the district for the 2012 presidential primary and just over 86,000 voters showed up for the presidential election.

Of those who have turned in ballots since March 7, Latinos make up 37%. The district's voter registration is more than half Latino. Republicans are out-performing their registration numbers by a few points, but Democrats still make up half of those who've cast ballots so far, higher than typical, experts say.

"We're pleased to see it, but I don't think we're counting any chickens yet," says David Mermin of Lake Research Partners, which has conducted polling for the Arambula campaign. "The special election is always a bit of a wild card."

Another potential data point that looks good for the GOP: Most of the ballots submitted so far have come from outside Fresno, where Olivier's name recognition as a city councilman and former TV anchor (most recently for KMPH-TV) is strongest.

Arambula, 38, is the grandson of immigrant farmworkers from Mexico running in a district with a majority of Latino voters, and his father, Juan Arambula, is a former assemblyman and county supervisor with a good reputation.

In an anti-establishment year, Arambula is positioning himself as an outsider who has spent his time serving his emergency room patients rather than building a name for himself.

"I don't think we need more politicians or lawyers in Sacramento," he said in an interview. "I think we need those of us who have had day jobs, who have been on the front lines of our respective fields."

Both candidates have amassed large war chests since Jan. 5, when Brown called the special election. Olivier has raised a total of $361,152; Arambula has raised a whopping $917,821. Both have large sums coming from their respective state parties looking to either bolster or protect their numbers in Sacramento.

Outside groups are spending heavily as well — more than $750,000 as of April 1.

Olivier and Arambula, along with their supporters, have traded pointed barbs that have grown increasingly personal, including a recent California Republican Party mailer highlighting a DUI citation Arambula received 17 years ago. Olivier says a committee supporting his opponent has misrepresented statements he made in a radio interview in political ads, and complaints have been filed against both campaigns with the state's Fair Political Practices Commission. Olivier in an interview called Arambula an "empty suit running with $1.5 million and his father's name," and set up a website to combat what he calls "Arambulies."

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One election won't make a huge difference in the balance of power in Sacramento, but if the GOP wins, it could keep Democrats from coming one seat closer to regaining a supermajority.

Whatever the outcome Tuesday, this process will have to be repeated before year's end. That's because the candidates each are expected to run for the next term, which begins in January. That means a primary in June and the Nov. 8 general election.

"We have three bites at the apple for this seat," says Ben Tulchin, a Democratic strategist who has done polling for the Assembly Democratic leadership in the past. He thinks Arambula will benefit from high Latino voter turnout in November.

Donald Trump, Tulchin says, is "the best gift Democrats could ask for."

For more on California politics, follow me @cmaiduc and sign up for the free Essential Politics newsletter

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