SACRAMENTO — California Democrats appear poised to expand their control of the Legislature, which could alter the dynamics of the next budget battle, already predicted for next year.
Between Sept. 5 and Oct. 15, Democrats registered 215,000 voters, almost twice as many as Republicans, according to county voter registration data. In several Assembly districts held by Republicans, Democrats have nearly closed the gap or even surpassed Republican registration.
Democratic gains of even a couple of seats on Nov. 4 could ease California's annual struggle to match spending with revenue. Eight Republican votes are now needed to pass a budget by the required two-thirds majority of lawmakers. If voters reject Republican candidates in some districts, Democrats may have a smaller anti-tax bloc to battle and fewer arms to twist to pass a budget.
Partisan deadlock over taxes and borrowing pushed the budget a record 85 days past deadline this year and shifted forward much of a $15.2-billion shortfall. With the economy deteriorating, that month-old spending plan is already at least $3 billion out of whack.
Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics at Cal State Sacramento, said she is "certain" Democrats will gain at least a couple of seats in the Legislature. "That will make a big difference in budget negotiations as the leadership and the governor try to unwind this horrible budget," said O'Connor.
Animus toward the Bush administration and enthusiasm for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama are driving voters to the Democratic Party, she said, and energizing independent voters.
"I think you're going to see a huge turnout and a lot of young voters, and that will make a great deal of change," O'Connor said.
Democrats are unlikely to capture all eight seats necessary to avoid cooperating with the GOP to pass a budget, said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the Target Book, which tracks California legislative and congressional races.
But if Republicans lose a few seats, he said, they might be more willing to buck their leadership and embrace revenue-boosting ideas such as the sales tax proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last summer, which no Republican lawmakers supported.
"I don't have a crystal ball," Hoffenblum said, "but what I can say is: Should there be an Obama landslide, the Democrats, because of their efforts vis-a-vis registration and funding their candidates, are well-positioned in California to take maximum advantage of it."
Republicans acknowledge that voters are unhappy about the nation's economic troubles, which have unfolded under the Republican Bush administration. But they say Assembly and state Senate candidates are appealing to Californians on local issues.
"People are looking to blame someone," said Hector Barajas, communications director for the California Republican Party, "and more than ever, candidates have to do face-to-face campaigning."
The belt-tightening underway in many California households will work to Republican advantage, predicted Joe Justin, the political consultant overseeing Assembly races for Republicans. "I think this is a really rotten time to be talking about increasing taxes on working families," he said.
Most of the 100 Senate and Assembly races on the ballot, including those in Los Angeles, are a foregone conclusion because districts so heavily favor either Republicans or Democrats. In at least seven districts, however, voter registration is more balanced, and in most of those Democrats have outpaced Republicans in recent registration gains.
To find those districts, follow the money. Teacher and state worker unions and corporations that spend millions of dollars a year lobbying the Legislature are trying to elect their favorite candidates by launching their own mailers and television ads. These "independent expenditures" show which races the special interests think are up for grabs.
So far, more than $860,000 has been sunk into a Ventura, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles County state Senate race that pits Democrat Hannah-Beth Jackson against Republican Tony Strickland. Both once served in the Assembly.
An additional $3.7 million has poured into six Assembly races from public employee unions, dentists, lawyers, nurses, developers, peace officers, insurance companies and others. By law, their efforts cannot be coordinated with the candidates' campaigns.
Five of the districts are held by Republicans, but voter registration in two has changed so much since the last election in 2006 that Democrats now hold an edge. Democratic voter registration now leads in the eastern Bay Area suburbs of Assembly District 15 and in the San Joaquin Valley towns of Assembly District 26.
"I'd rather be us than them," said Matt Reilly, who is overseeing the Assembly races for Democrats.