SACRAMENTO - A cherry farmer from the San Joaquin Valley holds the key to California Republicans' hopes of loosening Democrats' grip on the state Legislature.
Andy Vidak, a Republican who owns an orchard in Kings County, stunned both parties last year with an upset victory in a Senate district where Democrats have a 22-point advantage in voter registration. He ran largely on the basics, promising to cure a shortage of both jobs and water in the agricultural district and oppose the costly bullet train proposed to split the Central Valley.
He sidestepped gay marriage and some other divisive issues — while taking a moderate approach to immigration.
FOR THE RECORD:
California Republicans: An article in the March 23 California section about the GOP strategy for winning legislative elections this year said no Republican has held statewide office in California since 2006. It should have said no Republican has been elected to statewide office since 2006. —
With 100 legislative seats on the ballot this year, Republican leaders took notice. They have developed a $13.6-million plan to deprive Democrats of a supermajority in this year's election, and the confidential document, obtained by The Times, singles out Vidak's success as an example of what needs to be done.
"Our message was that common sense has no party lines," Vidak, 48, said in an interview.
He won by breaking from the party platform where it was an ill fit for his predominantly Latino district and focusing on ways in which residents felt let down by the Democratic majority.
"Mostly we listened," Vidak said. "We are all in the same boat. It's all about water and jobs."
His victory in a special election in the 16th Senate District eight months ago offered a ray of hope for a party that has been in a slump for years.
The Republican share of voter registration in California, at 35% a decade ago, has fallen to less than 29%, and no member of the party has held statewide office since 2006. In 2012, Democrats won supermajorities in both legislative houses, the first time one party had done so since 1933, and Republicans found themselves ignored as major policy decisions were made.
"The California Republican Party has been in decline in California for two decades," said Jim Brulte, the state party chairman. "Some Republicans don't want to believe that, but most objective observers know it to be the case."
Brulte took over a year ago and says he is rebuilding the party "from the ground up," asking candidates to craft the message that best fits their constituents rather than adopt positions handed down from on high.
"The candidate that most looks like and sounds like and has the most shared values and shared experience of the majority of voters wins," Brulte said.
The state Republican Party platform calls for enforcement of immigration laws and says that "allowing illegal immigrants to remain in California undermines respect for the law." It also calls for termination of all state benefits, except emergency medical care, to people in California illegally.
Vidak supports a path to citizenship for such immigrants. And he was one of only two Republican senators to vote last year for a bill granting wide access to driver's licenses for people living here without permission.
"I've worked beside folks who are in that situation," Vidak said. Lack of a license can be "a real hardship on people."
The only other Republican senator to vote for that bill was Anthony Cannella of Ceres, who employed a message similar to Vidak's to win election in a Central Valley district where Democrats also have a double-digit edge in voter registration.
Their positions resonated with agricultural workers who have had trouble getting to work and farm owners struggling to find enough field hands to harvest their crops. A majority of the voting-age population in Vidak's newly drawn district is Latino.
Vidak and Cannella also split from most Republican senators in voting for a new law allowing those who reside in California illegally to practice law if they pass the bar exam.
Some Republicans find the more moderate positions untenable.
"Any candidate that supports those issues is pandering to the wrong people," said Celeste Greig, immediate past president of a conservative group called the California Republican Assembly. "Lucky for him [Vidak] that I'm not in his district."
But many analysts say a shift on immigration issues is imperative for GOP candidates, especially in the Inland Empire and Central Valley, where there are large numbers of Latino voters, who have tended to vote Democratic.
"Those legislators have to become much more sensitive to Latino issues," said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP strategist who now publishes the nonpartisan California Target Book, which tracks elections.
The Republicans' new election plan says the party needs more diversity so its candidates look more like the communities they seek to represent.
Ruben Barrales, a former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush, is heading a program to recruit and fund Latino Republicans. And in a battleground Senate district in coastal Orange County, Republican Janet Nguyen is hoping to become the first Vietnamese American woman in the state Senate, running against former Democratic Assemblyman Jose Solorio.
Nguyen, a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, has adopted a message capitalizing on the fact that Democrats have held supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature for much of the last year. That allows them to raise taxes if they wish and take other actions without GOP votes. It also allows Republicans to hold Democrats wholly responsible for the state of the state.
"As Orange County supervisors, we have kept jobs and held the unemployment rate down to one of the lowest rates in the state," Nguyen said. "Sacramento has been a mess. They drive jobs away. Orange County has been a champion at the forefront of pension reform. Sacramento has not done that."
Vidak used a similar tactic during his campaign last year. Facing district voter registration of 50.7% Democratic and 28.6% Republican, he made no mention of such hot-button issues as abortion and gay marriage. Instead, he portrayed Democrats as out of touch with voters and criticized Gov. Jerry Brown's high-speed rail proposal as a $68-billion "rip-off" of taxpayers.
"There are communities in my district that don't have clean drinking water, and yet the liberal elites want to build a bullet train right through us," Vidak said.
Democratic political operative Jason Kinney called Vidak's 2013 victory a fluke, saying it resulted from the low voter turnout typical in special elections.
This year, Vidak has a Democratic challenger in the newly drawn 14th Senate District: Fresno schools trustee Luis Chavez, who is campaigning on a promise to reduce poverty, increase jobs and improve education. Kinney said Democrats would take the district this year, "given the strength of our candidate and the demographic power of this district."
Meanwhile, Vidak and other Republicans continue to raise alarms about a California future in which Democrats regain their full legislative supermajority. They are currently one seat short in the Senate but have one seat beyond the two-thirds threshold in the Assembly.
"On the Republican side, the message is loud and clear: Vote Republican so they won't be able to raise your taxes," Hoffenblum said.