One of the most closely watched Assembly races this year is underway in the California desert, where energized Democrats hope demographics and aggressive voter registration drives will help them end more than a decade of Republican domination.
The battle over the 80th District Assembly seat, which includes all of Imperial County and eastern Riverside County, pits Republican Gary Jeandron, a former Palm Springs police chief, against Democrat Manuel Perez. Both candidates are vying for the seat held by Bonnie Garcia (R-Cathedral City), who is being termed out.
Numbers favor the Democrats, who make up 44.76% of registered voters in the district compared to Republicans at 37.80%. The wild card may be the more than 25,000 registered voters who declined to state a party.
Yet despite the Democratic leaning, the GOP has won the seat in the last six elections.
"It's a Democratic Assembly district, but the Republicans keep winning," said Bob Richmond, chairman of the Riverside County Republican Party. "It is an important seat as far as we are concerned because if the Democrats get a two-thirds majority, there will no longer be any checks and balances."
Demographics could also play a role. Latinos are the majority in Imperial County, and the Coachella Valley has a large Latino population. Democrats are hoping that benefits Perez, the son of migrant farm workers and a member of the Coachella Valley Unified School District board.
"To some people the Hispanic thing is a concern, but to my way of thinking, we have held this seat because of the conservative candidates we run and the very liberal candidates they run," Richmond said. "I believe the Democrats in the district are conservative Democrats."
Democrats have run an aggressive voter registration program throughout the district, but recent numbers show the GOP with a slight numerical edge in eastern Riverside County. The county's Democratic Central Committee has charged that some voters were duped into registering as Republicans while signing petitions. The committee has filed a complaint with the district attorney's office.
"This is really an election between the haves and the have-nots," said Betty McMillion, chairman of the Riverside County Democratic Central Committee.
"Perez represents a whole new generation of Californians who are looking for social justice. Right now the most important thing for us is to get this budget squared away, but we have this group up in Sacramento that blocks anything that comes up. They opposed a one-cent sales tax. One cent. Can you believe that?"
Republicans dominate in the wealthier parts of the Coachella Valley, including Indian Wells, Palm Desert and La Quinta, and Democrats are the majority in Indio, Coachella and Palm Springs.
Jeandron has focused on taxes and public safety. He refused to comment for this article through his spokesman, Bill Lohr.
Perez said the economy, unemployment, healthcare and the environment are his priorities. He said Jeandron is running a negative campaign by asserting that Perez wants to raise taxes.
"By no means will I work to increase taxes on the working and middle classes. In fact, we want to provide tax breaks for the middle class so they can have more money," he said.
"Gary and I are very different. I am running because we have not been represented for the last 12 years.
"This is not just political. It's personal for me. I have seen up close the concerns people have. My parents were farm workers. I was raised in this area and I have a strong grasp of the issues."
Perez, 36, is director of community health and advocacy for the Borrego Health Foundation.
He has worked on public health issues throughout the Coachella Valley, including in notorious Duroville, the sprawling trailer park in Thermal that the federal government is trying to shut down.
"This race is significant because Democrats in the district, who are a majority, now feel this is a seat that can be won," he said.
"For us this is really a mission to bring change and justice and hope to these communities."