SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The lone Republican and a Democrat favored by party leaders were leading a field of five candidates in a hotly contested Central Valley state Senate contest in early returns Tuesday.
Republicans are trying to win what has been a Democratic state Senate seat in one of the two special legislative elections being held Tuesday, a potential coup that would eat into the supermajority that Democrats won just six months ago.
Democrat Michael Rubio of Bakersfield resigned the southern San Joaquin Valley seat in February to work for Chevron, giving Republicans a chance to win it against a crowded Democratic field.
Republican Andy Vidak was leading with 53 percent of the vote shortly after polls closed, with a third of precincts reporting. He was trailed by Democratic Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez of Bakersfield, who had 40 percent of the vote.
Vidak could win the Central Valley seat outright by gaining more than 50 percent of the vote, while Democrats are hoping to force a July 23 special runoff election by denying Vidak a majority of the vote.
Perez is favored by party leaders, but two other Democrats also are running: businesswoman Paulina Miranda of Fresno and business consultant Francisco Ramirez of Riverdale. Mohammad Arif of Bakersfield is running on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. Half the 16th Senate District's registered voters are Democrats, while 31 percent are registered Republican and nearly 13 percent have no party preference.
Republicans hope the three Democrats split the vote, which would benefit Vidak, a cherry farmer from Hanford who narrowly lost a congressional race to Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Costa in 2010.
Meanwhile, Lorena Gonzalez had 71 percent of early votes in a contest between two Democrats in San Diego County's 80th Assembly District. Gonzalez is favored by party leaders over fellow Chula Vista resident Steve Castaneda, who trailed with 29 percent in early returns.
Whoever wins in that district will temporarily restore Democrats' two-thirds majority in the Assembly. The victor will replace Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, who moved from the Assembly to the Senate in March.
It's the second round of special legislative elections in just a week as a yearlong game of musical chairs continues. Voters in Southern California's 32nd Senate District last week elected former assemblywoman Norma Torres, D-Pomona, creating another Assembly vacancy. Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday declared that the special primary election to fill Torres' seat will be July 23, with a special general election on Sept. 23 if no one wins a majority of the vote.
Both parties were targeting Latino voters in the Central Valley state Senate contest that came down to a race between Republican Vidak and Democrat Perez.
"If the Latino vote comes out, then Vidak probably doesn't get his 50 percent plus one. The key for Democrats is getting the Latino vote out," said California Target Book publisher Allan Hoffenblum, whose publication analyzes legislative and congressional campaigns.
Latinos make up about 53 percent of voters in the district that includes all or parts of Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare counties.
"We're cautiously optimistic," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar.
"We have a fighting chance," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. "But it's tough. It is a tough part of the state for us and it's a special election — low voter turnout."