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A Democratic supermajority for California's Senate?

Recent developments put the party within reach of gaining the two seats it needs for a two-thirds majority in the Legislature's upper house.

October 06, 2012|By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times
  • Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) placed second in the primary to newcomer Todd Zink, a Republican prosecutor. Above, then-Assemblywoman Pavley exults after passage of her global warming bill in 2008.
Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) placed second in the primary to newcomer… (Robert Durell / Los Angeles…)

SACRAMENTO — The last time one party held a two-thirds majority in the California Senate, President Johnson was sending troops to Vietnam, Los Angeles was recovering from the Watts riots and the state's governor was named Brown — Pat Brown.

That was 1965. Nearly half a century later, Democrats hope they are on the verge of again winning a supermajority in the upper house when voters go to the polls next month to fill 100 seats in the Legislature.

With a gain of two seats, the Democrats would have it, putting them halfway to their goal of nearly absolute power over California's policies and finances. A two-thirds vote of each house is required to raise taxes and overturn gubernatorial vetoes, among other actions.

Neither party is expected to reach that threshold this year in the Assembly (though in the past, Democrats in that house have been able to produce Republican votes for tax increases), which last had a supermajority in the 1970s when Democrats held it. But "the odds are very much in favor of the Democrats being able to get a two-thirds majority'' in the other house, said former GOP strategist Allan Hoffenblum, who tracks legislative races.

The opportunity stems from last year's independent redistricting process, which created more swing areas; from a precipitous decline in Republican voter registration in California; and from financial troubles that plague the state GOP, limiting Republicans' campaign options.

Democrats, who currently hold 25 of the Senate's 40 posts, are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on mail and television ads in three swing districts where they believe they can pick up seats from the GOP, according to Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

"There is no guarantee, but certainly we have a great shot," Steinberg said.

Republicans are fighting back by playing to some voters' fears of what Democrats with a supermajority might do.

Californians "don't want one-party rule," said state Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro.

But the GOP will be hard-pressed to match the Democrats' campaign cash. The California Republican Party had $203,000 as of Sept. 30 after spending $1 million during the previous three months. In contrast, the Democratic State Central Committee spent $4 million during the last three months and had $13.8 million in the bank as of Sept. 30.

"There is no doubt the Democrats are going to outspend Republicans in … all the races," said Dave Gilliard, a consultant for Assemblyman Jeff Miller (R-Corona), who is running against Democrat Richard Roth, an attorney, in a Riverside County Senate district.

Voter registration is evenly divided there, and Miller, an insurance company owner, won 51% of the vote in a primary that included two Democrats. Other groups, including county GOP committees, are stepping in with financial help where the state GOP has fallen short.

Roth, a former Air Force officer from Riverside, has raised $661,000 since June 30, including $362,000 from Democratic Party organizations; Miller had $265,000 in the bank on June 30 and has since raised more than $580,000, most of it from the San Luis Obispo County Republican Party.

A second battleground race is in the San Joaquin Valley, where two Stockton residents are facing off: Democratic Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani and Republican Assemblyman Bill Berryhill. Registration in that district is also evenly divided.

Each candidate has raised about $900,000 for the general election, with significant help from their parties' organizations.

In a district straddling the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County, Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) placed second in the primary to newcomer Todd Zink, a Republican prosecutor for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. About 40% of the district where they're competing is currently represented by Republican state Sen. Tony Strickland, who is running for Congress.

A group calling itself the California Senior Advocates League PAC has reported spending $315,000 so far to oppose Pavley with mailers and television ads, while putting $228,000 into an independent campaign opposing Galgiani and $90,000 to oppose Roth.

That PAC was funded mostly by a group called the Reform California Now Independent Expenditure Committee. That committee's money came largely from the California Real Estate Independent Expenditure Committee and large contributions from Chevron, cigarette maker Philip Morris and GOP activist Charles Munger Jr.

Pavley, a former mayor of Agoura Hills, reported $832,000 in her campaign coffers as of June 30. She has since raised $830,000 more, a large amount of it from the state Democratic Party.

Zink, who served in Iraq as a Marine Corps officer, had $81,000 in the bank as of June 30 but has since raised more than $790,000, most of it from the San Luis Obispo Republican Party. The county party's top contributors included the California Apartment Assn. PAC, BNSF Railway Co. and Oracle America Inc.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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