Gaining clout in Legislature not so easy for Democrats, election shows

Political observers say the extremely low turnout for Tuesday's primary election was heavily tilted toward Republicans. Above, Holly Stenson votes at the L.A. County lifeguard station in Venice.
Political observers say the extremely low turnout for Tuesday’s primary election was heavily tilted toward Republicans. Above, Holly Stenson votes at the L.A. County lifeguard station in Venice.
(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

This week’s primary election splashed a little cold water on Democrats’ hopes that they would have an easy time recapturing supermajorities in both house of the Legislature this year.

Republicans were, by wide margins, the top vote-getters in several key races, especially in the state Senate, where the majority party has been rocked by a series of scandals that left three Democratic members on suspension and facing criminal charges.

The suspensions have put Democrats two votes below the number needed for the two-thirds majority they won two years ago, which came with broad powers to raise taxes, place measures on the statewide ballot and override vetoes without Republican support.

To regain the supermajority the party held in the Senate until March, Democrats must win 13 of the 20 districts on the ballot in November. But they were the top vote-getters in just nine districts Tuesday.


“This primary election showed that it will be very difficult for Democrats to get to 27 seats,” said Alan Clayton, an analyst who has worked for Democrats.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) downplayed the results, saying the true test is in November, when Democrats believe they will draw more voters to the polls and tap stockpiled cash.

“Comparing June vote totals to November is like comparing preseason to the playoffs,” Steinberg said. “It’s a completely different election with a completely different turnout universe.”

Political observers also cautioned against reading too much into Tuesday’s poll results, saying the extremely low turnout was heavily tilted toward Republicans.


“You’re dealing with apples and oranges,” said Allan Hoffenblum, editor of California Target Book, an elections almanac. “People who turned out yesterday are different than those who will turn out in November.”

But California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte and others Wednesday credited a beefed-up ground operation and good candidates for the strong showing. Former Downey Mayor Mario Guerra, a Republican who was the leading vote-getter over four Democrats in one state Senate race, said many voters were also sending a message to Sacramento.

“They are tired of the corruption and partisan fighting,” Guerra said.

Remarkably, Republicans bested Democrats by large margins in five Senate districts where Democrats enjoy a comfortable edge in voter registration.


GOP state Sen. Andy Vidak (R-Hanford) received 62% of the vote against Democratic challenger Luis Chavez, who managed 38% in the primary for the redrawn 14th Senate District. That is despite the fact that Democrats targeted the seat because they make up 47% of the district’s registered voters, while Republicans are only 30%.

Nearby, state Sen. Anthony Cannella (R-Ceres) received 64% of the primary vote compared with 36% received by Democratic opponent Shawn K. Bagley in the 12th Senate District, setting the stage for a rematch in November. In that district, Republicans make up only 32% of registered voters, while Democrats comprise 42%.

In a third key contest, Republican Janet Nguyen, a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, won 51.5% of the vote in the 34th Senate District against former Assemblyman Jose Solorio, who garnered 34% to make the runoff election in November. Republican Long Pham finished third, with 14.5%. He is a former Orange County education board member.

In the Assembly, the GOP had the upper hand Tuesday in a pair of contests that will be key in determining the balance of power between the parties in the Assembly.


In Orange County, Republican candidate Young Kim, a former aide to Rep. Ed Royce (D-Fullerton), bested incumbent Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), 55% to 45%. As the only two candidates in the primary, they’ll repeat the match-up in November.

Tom Lackey, a Republican city councilman in Palmdale, was the top choice in the 36th Assembly District, with 42% of the vote. Sitting Assemblyman Steve Fox (D-Palmdale) finished in the top two with 33%.

Both Quirk-Silva and Fox eked out surprise wins in 2012; their districts are prime GOP takeover targets.

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) said her colleagues’ second-place finish “wasn’t a surprise.” November “was our endgame to begin with,” she said. “We’re prepared to do what it takes at the end of the day.”


First-term Assemblyman Ian Calderon (D-Whittier) trailed his Republican challenger, attorney Rita Topalian, 52% to 48%, even though Democrats have a 20 percentage point registration advantage in the district.

Calderon may have been harmed by scandals plaguing his uncles, state Sen. Ronald Calderon (D-Montebello) and former Assemblyman Tom Calderon, who face criminal charges including an accusation that the senator accepted bribes for official favors. The Assemblyman downplayed the effect of those legal woes.

“People will see I’m my own person. All that has been happening — it’s unfortunate, but it has nothing to do with me,” Ian Calderon said, attributing his second-place finish to low voter turnout.