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California Democrats poised to make historic gains in state Senate, expand control of Legislature

State Sen. Toni Atkins receives congratulations from Sen. Scott Wiener after a state Senate vote in 2017.
Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, being congratulated by Sen. Scott Wiener in 2017, says her caucus is focused on several races that could flip from the GOP.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Buoyed by another blue wave, Democrats are awaiting election results in two races that, if won, could mean historic gains in the state Senate and further pad their supermajority in the California Legislature.

Democrats learned Thursday that they picked up two seats in the Senate that had been held by Republicans. If they prevail in one additional race, the party will have 32 of the 40 seats in the upper house.

That would be the most Democrats in the state Senate since 1883, said Alex Vassar, communications manager at the California State Library. Democrats have never held more than 32 seats, Vassar said.

“Who knew California could be more blue?” said Robin Swanson, a veteran Democratic communications consultant.

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Democrats in both houses entered the election with a supermajority and will retain that two-thirds voting threshold, which allows them to pass most legislation without Republican help. But with more blue comes more challenges, Swanson added.

Adding Democrats means more competition for coveted committees. It also means there will be a wider range in the types of Democrats elected, from fiscally moderate to ultra-liberal.

“All Democrats are not the same,” Swanson said. “It’s not a voting bloc monolith. The party has to figure out how to be an even bigger tent. Don’t get me wrong; that’s a high-quality problem to have.”

Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) said her caucus knew which candidate and race to prioritize during the election: former state Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) in Senate District 29, which encompasses parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties. Newman was unseated in his freshman term in a 2018 recall campaign led by Republicans that upended Democrats’ supermajority.

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“That seat was a priority,” Atkins said. “We feel that seat was taken from us unfairly.”

Newman won the seat in 2016 by narrowly defeating Diamond Bar Republican Ling Ling Chang. After Democrats, including Newman, voted in favor of a gas tax in 2018, Republicans targeted what was viewed as the most vulnerable seat in a successful ouster that saw Chang replace him.

On Thursday, Newman was projected the winner by the Associated Press in his rematch against Chang.

“His recall was viewed as an unwarranted act of partisan hackery, and Senate Democrats really wanted to right that wrong,” said Jason Kinney, a former spokesman for Senate Democrats.

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In Orange County, Irvine law professor Dave Min, a Democrat, defeated incumbent Republican state Sen. John Moorlach in Senate District 37.

The district was solidly Republican when Moorlach won in 2015, but voter registrations have since leaned toward Democrats, with a large bloc of voters registered as having no party preference. Orange County is on track for a historic 86% voter turnout in the election.

Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), who has posted tweets backing President Trump’s unfounded claims of election fraud, said close races had yet to be decided and urged voters to be patient. The latest count released Thursday by the California Secretary of State’s office showed roughly 1 million ballots were still being counted.

“We are still days and weeks away from finding out the final results,” Grove said in a statement.

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Republicans are leading Democrats in two other close races.

In Senate District 21, located in parts of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, incumbent state Sen. Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita) was holding a slight lead over Democrat Kipp Mueller. And in nearby Senate District 23, Yucaipa Republican Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh leads San Bernardino Democrat Abigail Medina. Sen. Mike Morrell (R-Rancho Cucamonga) holds the seat but is being forced out by term limits.

Atkins said Senate Democrats were also focused on ensuring their caucus did not lose the Central Valley seat in Senate District 5, where Sen. Cathleen Galgiani (D–Stockton) has also termed out. In that race, Assemblywoman Susan Eggman (D-Stockton) defeated former Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour, a Republican.

“Those seats in the Central Valley are difficult,” Atkins said. “We started early and looked at all the races. The national environment gave us an opportunity with Trump to have a better shot than we ordinarily would have.”

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In the Assembly, Democrats lost one seat previously held by Christy Smith of Santa Clarita, who is running to represent the 25th congressional district. Two Republicans finished in the top two spots during the primary, ensuring Democrats could not regain the district. Suzette Martinez Valladares defeated Lucie Lapointe Volotzky in that race.

Entering the election, Democrats held 61 of the 80 seats in the lower house. They are also closely watching Assembly District 74, where incumbent Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach) narrowly leads Newport Beach Republican Diane Dixon.

Assemblyman Chad Mayes (I-Rancho Mirage), who dropped his Republican Party affiliation last year, defeated Republican San Jacinto Mayor Andrew Kotyuk. Mayes becomes the first person elected to the Legislature without a party affiliation since Sen. Quentin Kopp was reelected in 1994.

In San Jose, 25-year-old Alex Lee, a Democrat, will be the youngest state legislator to assume office in more than 80 years. Lee defeated Republican Bob Brunton for Assembly District 25, which encompasses San Jose, Santa Clara and Fremont. The seat was previously held by Democrat Kansen Chu, who left to run for Santa Clara County supervisor.

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“I’m feeling ecstatic,” Lee said. “We won in a landslide victory, and I’m incredibly proud of that.”


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