The November special election ordered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has muddled the nascent campaigns of several dozen contenders for statewide office just as the 2006 races are taking shape.
Measures on the November ballot will devour millions of dollars that might otherwise flow to the 2006 candidates. The special election -- smack in the middle of their campaigns -- is also likely to disrupt efforts by the wide field of early contestants to rouse public attention.
Most significantly, it could eclipse the Democrats vying in the June 2006 primary for a shot at challenging the Republican governor if he seeks a second term.
"It sucks a lot of the energy out of California politics that would naturally be focused on the gubernatorial election," said Jude Barry, manager of state Controller Steve Westly's campaign for governor.
Westly, a Democrat, launched his candidacy Saturday with a Web chat to highlight his record as a former Silicon Valley executive offering "innovation" to Sacramento. Another Democrat, state Treasurer Phil Angelides, joined the governor's race months ago.
Even before Schwarzenegger called the special election, candidates in the 2006 contests for governor, U.S. Senate and other statewide jobs faced a volatile political climate.
The biggest unknown is whether Schwarzenegger will seek reelection. Despite his slide in popularity, his dominance of California politics is such that his decision carries vast implications for every other statewide candidate.
The special election, described by one Schwarzenegger strategist as a "planned political earthquake," only heightens the 2006 campaign's unpredictability.
Schwarzenegger's ballot measures face fierce opposition from Democrats and organized labor. They would give governors more budget power and limit school spending when tax collections waned, restrict teacher tenure and change who draws election district lines. Beyond the governor's agenda, several other ballot measures on subjects such as prescription drug discounts are likely to spur major ad campaigns.
Among the open questions: If voters pass Schwarzenegger's initiatives, will he emerge strong enough to virtually guarantee his reelection? If so, can he carry other Republicans into statewide office, reversing a decade of broad Democratic gains in California?
For Democrats, "there is this big danger that Arnold could win a lot of stuff and look unbeatable," said Bruce Cain, director of UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies.
On the other hand, if voters reject his ballot measures, will Schwarzenegger's loss set the stage for Democrats to avenge their defeat in the 2003 recall? Or will voters offer a mixed verdict on the governor's proposals?
"There's never been this degree of uncertainty in modern California political history," said Kevin Spillane, a Republican campaign strategist.
Another possibility is that Schwarzenegger and Democratic lawmakers will strike a deal this summer on compromise ballot measures to minimize the special-election clash.
For Schwarzenegger, the prospect of rebuilding his image as a populist outsider shaking up Sacramento offers an incentive to bargain. Democrats, whose core labor constituency could face lasting political damage from measures on the November ballot, could also benefit from a deal.
Although obscured now, a spirited campaign for California's top elected jobs is already underway nearly a year before the 2006 primaries -- a free-for-all set off by term limits.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown, now mayor of Oakland, is plotting his return to Sacramento as attorney general. His likely rival in the Democratic primary is Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo.
Bill Simon, the Los Angeles investment manager who lost two bids for governor, has trimmed his ambitions and entered the GOP primary for state treasurer. Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, who abandoned his own longtime quest to be governor, is heavily favored for the treasurer spot on the Democratic ticket.
The top Democrat up for reelection next year is U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Republicans have struggled to find a challenger, but some party strategists expect it to be Bill Mundell, a wealthy Los Angeles technology executive.
For months, the 2006 candidates have been scurrying to round up support and money. This month, the pace has picked up as the June 30 deadline has approached for finance reports that will show which candidates have raised enough money to seem viable.
Northridge Assemblyman Keith Richman, facing Simon in the GOP primary for treasurer, invited donors to golf with him in Valencia.
Liz Figueroa, a state senator who aspires to be lieutenant governor, offered donors Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon at a winery in the rolling hills near her Bay Area district.
One of her opponents in the Democratic primary, Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, mingled with his contributors last week over Pellegrino and bruschetta at an Italian restaurant in San Diego.