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Seats Will Be Competitive in Only a Few Districts

October 15, 2006|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — If California's 120 legislative districts were seesaws, almost all would be pointed to the sky, with one end weighted down by a preponderance of either Democratic or Republican voters.

Only four districts are more or less balanced between the two parties. One of them, in Orange County, is expected to be among the most contested Nov. 7.

Throughout California, most candidates for the Assembly or state Senate could forgo campaigning and still win handily, based on whether they have a D or an R after their names.

That's exactly what Democratic and Republican leaders had in mind in 2000 when they drew districts weighted to favor the status quo.

But people don't stay put, and over time demographic shifts have helped to make a few legislative races competitive. Political parties, corporations and unions will sink the most money into those few contested races -- none of them, however, in Los Angeles County -- with the hope of shifting the district from Democratic control to Republican or vice versa.

Still, if two or three seats changed party hands, the overall balance of power in the Legislature would not swing. There are 48 Democrats and 32 Republicans in the Assembly and 25 Democrats and 15 Republicans in the Senate. That's more than enough Democrats to pass most legislation without Republican support. But the loss of even one Democratic seat could make passage of the state's budget more difficult because it requires a two-thirds vote and therefore some Republican support.

The most competitive race on the November ballot -- also likely to be the most expensive at $8 million or more -- is for an inland Orange County Senate seat in a district that includes Anaheim, Garden Grove and Westminster.

Term limits have forced Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana) to give up the seat. Seeking to replace him are Democrat Lou Correa, a former assemblyman who serves on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, and Assemblywoman Lynn Daucher (R-Brea), who has served the maximum six years in the Assembly.

Voter registration in the district, once solidly Republican, is 41% Democratic and 38% Republican, with 17% declining to state, according to the California secretary of state's office.

There was a pro-business bent to Correa's voting in the Assembly, and Daucher broke recently with fellow Republicans to support bills to raise the minimum wage and create a discount prescription drug program.

Daucher has raised $1.6 million since January, including $800,000 from the California Republican Party and $250,000 from the Republican Central Committee of Orange County, with $547,000 on hand as of the end of September. The Democratic State Central Committee last week contributed $350,000 to Correa's campaign.

The Correa-Daucher race hasn't fully engaged yet, but candidates already are trading punches in another competitive district in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

Assemblywoman Nicole Parra (D-Hanford) is running for the final of her three Assembly terms against Republican Danny Gilmore, a retired California Highway Patrol officer.

Though Democrats hold a 47% to 39% voter registration advantage over Republicans in the district, it's a conservative area. Republicans think they have in Gilmore a better candidate than Dean Gardner, a Bakersfield businessman who nearly beat Parra in 2002 and tried but failed again in 2004.

Gilmore reports having raised $421,000 since January, more than half of it from the California Republican Party. He had $111,000 cash on hand at the end of September, compared to Parra's $259,000.

Another incumbent lawmaker fighting for reelection is Republican Sen. Jeff Denham of Salinas, a businessman whose company makes plastic containers for farmers. He won his Central Valley and Salinas Valley district in 2002 despite voter registration that is 46% Democratic and 38% Republican.

Denham's opponent, Wiley Nickel, is a Merced County prosecutor who happens to be the great-great-great-grandson of Henry Miller, the German immigrant who amassed hundreds of thousands of San Joaquin Valley acres in the 1880s and became known as "the cattle king."

At the end of September, Denham reported having $1.9 million to spend, while Nickel had $80,000 on hand. Nickel invested $240,000 of family money in his primary race, and the Democratic Party by early October had yet to give him significant amounts.

Another Republican lawmaker who can't coast to reelection is Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia (R-Cathedral City). Her Imperial County and eastern Riverside County district is registered 47% Democratic and 37% Republican.

College of the Desert political scientist Bill Gudelunas called Garcia "one of the gutsiest, hardest-working politicians locally."

Her opponent, Steve Clute, served in the Assembly from 1982 to 1992 and now directs a Riverside nonprofit organization. He has criticized Garcia for failing to help the district handle its recent rapid growth.

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