SACRAMENTO — Across the state this autumn weekend, an army of campaign workers is knocking on doors to coax likely voters to the polls for Tuesday's election, which has turned into a referendum on whether control of the Legislature should remain divided between the two major parties.
Nowhere in Southern California is the struggle to get out the vote more heated than in two clusters in Los Angeles County: one that stretches from the heart of the film industry in the San Fernando Valley eastward to Pasadena, and a second anchored in the Long Beach-South Bay area.
With all 80 Assembly and 20 of the Senate's 40 seats up for grabs, voters are being offered a wide variety of down-ticket choices.
The outcome will determine who choreographs the legislative agenda on such high-profile issues as taxes, crime, smoking, guns and education.
Although Democrats are expected to retain their advantage in the state Senate, the race to control the Assembly--controlled by Republicans for the first time in a quarter century--looks like it will be a photo finish as candidates scramble down the home stretch.
Millions of dollars are being poured into direct mailers, TV commercials and lawn signs in an eleventh-hour spending spree to influence the outcome. Democrats say GOP expenditures reflect an Oktoberfest of campaign financing.
"It takes a lot of chutzpah to make a characterization like that," said Republican Sen. Ross Johnson of Irvine, citing millions amassed by Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward). "Given the fact that [Senate] Republicans will be dramatically outspent, we feel good about being in the hunt," Johnson said. "But it's going to come right down to the wire in some of those races."
Democrats say the political winds are blowing in their direction with Bill Clinton at the top of their ticket.
"I'd rather be a Democrat than a Republican this fall," said Lockyer, who has been out walking precincts and is mobilizing Capitol staffers to hit the streets on the eve of the election.
"We see a modest tidal action of opinion toward Democratic values and candidates. It's not a tsunami but there is a consistent trend," Lockyer said.
That view was echoed by Assembly Democrats.
"We have a pretty good shot at regaining the majority," said veteran political consultant Darry Sragow, who is overseeing Assembly Democratic campaigns. "It's a year we're swimming with the current as opposed to it. The president is substantially ahead. Californians are feeling pretty good about things in general."
John Nelson, Republican Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle's press secretary, said the Democrats are finding that recapturing the lower house is a much more Herculean task than they anticipated.
Although Nelson is upbeat about Pringle's chances to keep his hold on power, he acknowledged that races in several swing districts have tightened.
Tony Quinn, a former Assembly GOP aide who helps publish a nonpartisan election guide, said "we would give Republicans the nod at coming back with 41 seats."
Quinn said several Los Angeles-area contests are too close to call so "if it turns out to be a Democratic year [on the] down-ticket, Democrats could pick up those."
If there's anything like a sure bet in this tumultuous election year, it's the legislative races in Republican-rich Orange County.
The GOP is expected to cruise to easy victories in every race. The only real contest was expected in the 69th Assembly District, where GOP incumbent Jim Morrissey (R-Santa Ana) faces Democrat challenger Lou Correa. But insiders say polls have Morrissey up by a double-digit margin.
Now, the partisan lineup in the Assembly is 41 Republicans, 36 Democrats, one Reform Party member and two vacancies in seats historically held by Democrats.
In the 40-member Senate, half the seats are at stake. The makeup is now 22 Democrats, 16 Republicans and two independents who often side with Democrats.
A variety of interests are seeking to influence the outcome, from organized labor and Latino lawmakers hoping to boost their numbers to the California Republican Party and Gov. Pete Wilson seeking to preserve the GOP majority in the Assembly.
As part of a coordinated GOP strategy, Wilson pledged $800,000 to legislative races, mirroring Republican priorities.
Wilson, whose staff has urged administration appointees to join the campaign trail, gave $45,000 to Assemblywoman Paula Boland (R-Granada Hills), who finds herself locked in what one Republican characterized as "World War III in the trenches" against Democrat Adam Schiff, a Burbank attorney, for what historically has been bedrock GOP terrain.
They are competing for the 21st Senate District seat being vacated by Glendale Republican Newton R. Russell, who is prohibited by term limits from seeking reelection. Also on the ballot is Libertarian Bob New.