SACRAMENTO — Democrats, defending 16 of the 20 state Senate seats at stake in the Nov. 4 election and beset by political problems, acknowledge that this may be a good year for Republicans to strengthen their numbers.
"Probabilities being what they are, I suspect that Republicans will pick up one seat," conceded Senate Majority Leader Barry Keene (D-Benicia).
Republicans, however, figure that Democrats may lose as many as three seats.
No one from either party, though, is suggesting that Democrats will lose control of the Senate in the fall elections. Democrats now outnumber Republicans 26 to 14.
At least two new faces are guaranteed in the Upper House next year.
Two veteran Democrats are leaving--Sen. Walter Stiern of Bakersfield, the dean of the Legislature, who is retiring from politics, and Sen. John Foran of San Francisco, who will become a lobbyist. Hotly contested elections have developed in both their districts.
In addition, four Democratic incumbents have been targeted for defeat by state GOP leaders.
Only four Republican seats are at risk in the election, and Democrats appear to be concentrating on only one of them.
Thorny Political Problem
One of the thorniest political problems for Democrats is the potential side effects of the confirmation election of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, an appointee of ex-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. with deep political ties to Democrats. With polls showing Bird to be in trouble with voters because of her decisions overturning death-penalty cases, Democrats supporting her could be hurt, too.
Another is the gubernatorial reelection campaign of Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, and the governor's battle with Senate Democrats over their refusal to approve a new state prison that he wants to build near downtown Los Angeles.
Republicans went into the elections expecting Deukmejian to be popular enough to defeat his Democratic opponent, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, and hoping that he would have long enough coattails to help GOP legislative candidates in their campaigns. But Deukmejian promised even more help after Senate Democrats blocked his prison plan.
The governor already has been to several districts to help GOP Senate candidates raise money, and has more fund-raising visits planned.
On another front, Republicans have mounted aggressive voter registration drives, signing up 450,000 new GOP voters since the last election, including 17,000 in the first week of September. Party strategists believe that the new Republican voters will make a difference in several districts.
Keene wouldn't predict which of the six contested seats he thinks Democrats may lose, nor would GOP leaders be specific about which districts they believe they have the best shot at taking. Party leaders on both sides are still in the process of developing fall election strategies, they said.
Several races could cost the two parties up to $1 million each.
Some candidates began expensive television advertising campaigns shortly after Labor Day--early for Senate races--and will stay on the air until the election.
Republicans believe that the high cost of the campaigns may be the Democrats' biggest problem.
Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim), the GOP Caucus chairman, said Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) must come up with the money to finance most of the campaigns. "He is going to be spread so thin that I don't think financially he'll be able to stretch far enough," Seymour said.
The beleaguered Roberti is leading the fight to keep the prison away from the Eastside Los Angeles area.
In addition, he has angered elements of the housing industry with his continued opposition to legislation aimed at watering down tough local rent-control laws. Realtors, landlords and others threatened retaliation after Roberti blocked the last effort to enact a measure relaxing rent controls, but so far the threatened opposition has not developed. Republicans are counting on it, though.
"Roberti didn't make them happy. We feel they are very unhappy with David and we expect them to show it," Sen. James W. Nielsen (R-Rohnert Park) said.
Roberti said on Friday that he hopes that anger over rent control will be outweighed by many votes Democrats have cast that benefit developers and the housing industry. Overall, he contended, Democrats have been better for the real estate industry than have Republicans.
Roberti also said that polls show Democrats to be leading or running even in all their races.
But the Democratic leader said he would be "happy" to lose just one seat, and "thrilled" to maintain the Democrats' 26-14 edge.
Most Expensive Campaigns
Among the most expensive races will be the battle for Stiern's 16th Senate District. The district was gerrymandered during the last reapportionment so that its political boundaries now extend from Kern County agricultural communities north of Bakersfield all the way down into Pasadena, where it includes some heavily Democratic precincts.