SACRAMENTO — With Democratic voter registration at its lowest point since the Great Depression era and with a popular incumbent governor running at the top of the ticket, Republicans believe they have the best chance in years to pick up new legislative seats in Tuesday's election.
Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) has a lot riding on the outcome because 16 of the 20 seats at stake are occupied by fellow Democrats.
Senate Republican leaders say they hope to cut into the Democrats' 26-14 majority by two or three seats. However, they are cautious about making hard predictions because of such unpredictable variables as voter turnout.
"Our prospects are exciting. Republican registration is at an all-time high," said Sen. John Seymour of Anaheim, chairman of the Senate GOP Caucus, but added that uncertainties make it "nail-biting time."
Even in a worst-case scenario, Democrats do not expect to lose their majorities in either the Senate or Assembly. With all 80 seats at stake in the Assembly and 20 out of 40 in the Senate, only a handful of incumbents appear to be in any real danger.
In the Assembly, now controlled 47 to 33 by Democrats, Republicans hope to add two seats, although a top Democratic strategist said the GOP could just as easily lose two seats.
"It's going to be in a range of two seats either way. You're looking at 49 or 45 Democratic seats," said Richie Ross, chief of staff to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco). Ross is on leave to manage Democratic campaigns.
Assemblyman Gerald N. Felando (R-San Pedro), chairman of the Assembly Republican Caucus, predicted, "We will pick up at least two seats, considering the latest voter registration figures and the popularity of Gov. George Deukmejian."
Besides the Democratic vs. Republican rivalry over power in the Legislature, the election raises the possibility of a rare win by an independent Senate candidate, Quentin Kopp, a veteran San Francisco supervisor who used to be a Democrat.
Kopp faces Democratic Assemblyman Louis J. Papan of Millbrae for an open seat in the 8th Senate District, which spans portions of San Francisco and San Mateo counties. The vacancy was created when veteran state Sen. John F. Foran (D-San Francisco) announced his retirement.
Kopp got a boost on Friday when the third candidate in the race, Republican Russell Gray, withdrew and threw his support behind the San Francisco supervisor. If Kopp wins, it would deprive Democrats of a seat they seemed at one point to have a lock on because of heavily Democratic voter registration.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum, who used to be a Republican assemblyman and would like to be governor or a U.S. senator someday, loaned $65,000 to Kopp. For the last five years, Schabarum, appointed to the board by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1972, has contributed thousands of campaign dollars to various candidates and causes, many of them located outside Los Angeles County.
In all, there are 13 open seats in the Legislature--two in the Senate and 11 in the Assembly--because incumbents are retiring or have sought higher office.
Unofficial figures compiled by the secretary of state's office show that the Democratic share of California's registered voters is at its lowest percentage 1934, while Republican registration is on the rise.
The latest figures show that the Democratic Party has registered 50.84% of the voters, compared to 38.28% Republicans. In 1982, the last gubernatorial election year, 53.2% of the registered voters were Democrats and 34.9% were Republicans.
Help for Republicans has also come from Deukmejian, who is running ahead of his Democratic opponent, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, in all major voter opinion surveys, and has campaigned extensively for GOP legislative candidates, helping in the critically important task of fund raising.
Up and down the state, Republican candidates are contrasting the popularity of Deukmejian and the unpopularity of Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, who is up for reconfirmation in the election.
In addition to the Papan-Kopp race, Democrats also face a tough fight to hold the second open Senate seat. The sprawling 16th District seat is being vacated by retiring Sen. Walter W. Stiern (D-Bakersfield), the dean of the Legislature. It stretches from Kings County south into Pasadena, but its center is the Bakersfield area.
Republicans went into the election believing that the Stiern seat was an almost sure thing because of the past demonstrated ability of their candidate, GOP Assemblyman Don Rogers, to win elections in Democratic Kern County. But Democrats mounted a strong effort to hold onto the seat behind the candidacy of Jim Young, a community college chancellor.