SACRAMENTO — When Assemblyman Ken Maddox, a Republican from Garden Grove, voted against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's $15-billion budget-balancing bond, he knew it could cost him.
So Maddox wasn't surprised recently when Schwarzenegger, in an unusual move for a governor, weighed in on a legislative primary race and endorsed Maddox's opponent for a Senate seat, Assemblyman John Campbell (R-Irvine).
Campbell also voted against the bond, but later signed a letter supporting it. Maddox, however, refused to sign.
"Nobody's going to come right out and say, 'If you don't do this, we're coming after you,' " Maddox said. "But we're all big boys."
It is unclear exactly how the voter groundswell that cast out Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in October will affect the contests for 100 Assembly and Senate seats that are at stake in the March 2 primary election.
Campbell is the only legislative candidate whom the governor has directly endorsed. But in the Oct. 7 recall election, a majority of voters in 22 districts now held by Democratic lawmakers favored recalling Davis and replacing him with a Republican.
So Schwarzenegger's popularity, even in districts deliberately configured to be heavily Democratic, creates uncertainty.
Some seats once seen by Republicans as untouchable are now considered in play.
Republicans hope to ride Schwarzenegger's coattails to victory in a few more seats in the Legislature, where they are outnumbered 48 to 32 in the Assembly and 25 to 15 in the Senate.
"These were drawn as safe districts, but they were drawn under an entirely different set of political circumstances," said GOP strategist Dan Schnur. "The amount of resources and attention that Arnold Schwarzenegger can bring into a state legislative race can turn a lot of safe seats" into competitive ones.
"Republicans aren't going to win most of those seats in November," he said. But every one of the Democratic legislators in districts that voted for Schwarzenegger "is going to have to campaign as if they are vulnerable."
So far, Schwarzenegger's endorsements have been limited to Campbell for the state Senate, former Secretary of State Bill Jones for U.S. Senate and U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) for reelection. All were early supporters of Schwarzenegger. Campbell began advising him on budget issues within 10 days of his declaration to run.
"The three people he's endorsed in the primary are very special cases of people he feels loyal to," said Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman.
Matt Rexroad, who is managing the campaigns of three Republican Assembly candidates, said he doubted that Schwarzenegger would make any more endorsements in the primary election.
Former Gov. Pete Wilson, also a Republican, tried to influence the legislative primary races in 1992 by making at least 17 endorsements. Many of the candidates he backed lost, and Schwarzenegger's advisors are familiar with that history.
But several Republican candidates for legislative seats have already asked Rexroad to help them win the governor's endorsement for the November general election, he said.
Stutzman said the governor's office isn't thinking that far ahead yet.
"The governor did not come here to contemplate politics," he said, "but to contemplate the state's fiscal crisis."
Before Republicans face Democrats, they've got to survive the family feuds that are the primary elections.
"In the primary, you've got all these open, safe seats, and the action there determines the ideological makeup of the Legislature," said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan elections guide. "Is it a pro-business Democrat or a pro-labor Democrat who gets chosen to serve the next six years?"
Experts say that there are more than 20 legislative primary races that are too close to call.
That includes Campbell and Maddox vying for the 35th Senate District on the Orange County coast. Each is claiming the better conservative credentials.
Despite being outspent nearly 2-to-1 by Campbell and rejected by Schwarzenegger, Maddox remains confident, calling himself a better grass-roots campaigner.
The former police officer said people in the district probably hope that Schwarzenegger "is busier fixing the roads and fixing the schools and everything than making sure John Campbell has a job after March 2." Maddox has gotten donations from public employee unions, including firefighters, and the endorsement of tax-fighter Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks).
Campbell, who owned an automobile dealership before he became an Assemblyman, has tapped other dealership owners in Southern California for substantial contributions. By mid-January, Campbell had on hand $420,000, compared with Maddox's $260,000.
Both have put up hundreds of signs in a U-shaped district that curves inland 15 miles from the coast and extends south to Irvine. The race is being fought largely through the mail.
In his mailers, Maddox accuses Campbell of voting to allow undocumented residents who commit crimes in California to be returned to their country of origin with no assurance they would remain in prison.
Campbell has mailed literature to every registered Republican household in the district to let them know of the Schwarzenegger endorsement.
"I will take nothing for granted until March 3," said Campbell, "but it is enormously helpful."
Times staff writer David Reyes contributed to this report.