The Sacramento Bee: California Republicans hope to cut into Democratic majorities in 2014

In early December, about a month after the election in which Democrats seized a two-thirds majority in the Legislature, a group of Republican strategists met to assess the damage in an office building across from the state Capitol.

“It certainly isn’t great,” said Jeff Randle, the consultant in whose office they met.

It had been more than 100 years since Republicans in the Legislature sunk so low. The thoroughness of their defeat was embarrassingly bad, and the party limped into the new year desperate for a win.

It came in a surprising place, in a heavily Democratic district in the Central Valley in July. There Andy Vidak, a Republican farmer, defeated Democrat Leticia Perez in a race to fill the state Senate seat left vacant when Democrat Michael Rubio resigned.

Now, Republican Party officials believe they have a chance to undo Democrats’ two-thirds majority in the Legislature next year. As state Republicans gather in Anaheim this weekend for their biannual convention, they will prepare for an election in which the party is likely to all but abstain from the gubernatorial race and other statewide contests, which are widely considered out of Republicans’ reach.

Instead, they will focus their limited resources on congressional races and a small group of legislative contests in Southern California and the Central Valley. If Republicans can hold the seats they now occupy and pick up just a handful of Democratic-held districts, the party within a year could pull itself back from near-irrelevancy in the Legislature.

“I think the stars are lining up for us to get back from that superminority threshold,” said Senate Republican leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar.

Even Huff would not have considered that a possibility just three months ago. But after Vidak’s win, he said, “I think we have a really good shot.”

Vidak’s victory came despite a Democratic registration advantage of more than 20 percentage points in his district, and it became a showcase for the party’s political operation under Jim Brulte, the former Senate Republican leader who was elected chairman of the state party in March.

The party poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Vidak’s campaign, and it recruited volunteers from throughout the state to walk precincts and make telephone calls on Vidak’s behalf. Vidak will be showcased at this weekend’s convention, appearing tonight with Huff at a “Salute to Volunteers.”

The victory not only gave Republicans a pick-up in the Senate, but also a desperately needed shot of morale to donors and party activists.

“I think the Andy Vidak race showed the ability of the Republican Party to focus when it had to,” said Assemblyman Rocky Chávez, R-Oceanside. “It was good for the brand of the party.”

Vidak’s victory came in a special election, a typically low-turnout affair that tends to favor Republicans. His re-election campaign will be in a newly drawn, slightly less Democratic district, but in a general election in which Democratic turnout is likely to be higher.

Republicans are likely to gain a Senate seat from a newly drawn district centered in Riverside County, a Republican stronghold. The party could break the Democrats’ two-thirds majority in the upper house if it can re-elect Vidak, defend Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, from a Democratic challenge, and capture the seat being vacated by Sen. Lou Correa, a Democrat from Santa Ana.
“With the election of Sen. Vidak,” Brulte said, “we now have a path.”

In the Assembly, Republicans are expected to focus their attention on re-electing Republican Assemblymen Jeff Gorell of Camarillo, Eric Linder of Corona, and Mike Morrell of Rancho Cucamonga, while hoping to win two seats now held by Democrats. The GOP’s targets include Democratic Assembly members Steve Fox of Palmdale, Al Muratsuchi of Torrance, Sharon Quirk-Silva of Fullerton and Rudy Salas of Bakersfield.

“They have to hold on to what they’ve got, and they’ve got to pick up a couple of seats,” said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of California’s Target Book, which handicaps legislative races.

He said the success of the Republican Party will depend largely on the candidates it fields. It is “much too soon” to predict the party’s chances, Hoffenblum said, calling such an exercise “kind of throwing darts right now.”

The meeting in Randle’s office was of members of the board of California Trailblazers, a candidate recruitment and training program. Randle, who advised Mitt Romney in his presidential campaign and is chairman of the Trailblazers board, said this week that this “may be the most critical election cycle that I’ve been a part of in this state during my political career.”

“I think we absolutely have to break the two-thirds in at least one house,” he said.

Randle’s organization is recruiting candidates and has put on training sessions, covering everything from how to speak to reporters to how to approach potential donors for money. It is partnering with GROW Elect, a political action committee formed to elect Latino Republicans in California.

The significance of a two-thirds majority was diminished when voters in 2010 lowered the threshold for budget passage to a simple majority. Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, said this week that even if Republicans could break back from their superminority status, “I don’t think that’s going to make a lot of difference.”

But tax measures still require a two-thirds vote, and cutting into the Democrats’ hold on either legislative house could provide Republicans a significant symbolic lift.

Democrats hold a registration advantage in nearly all of the seats in which Republicans are hoping to compete. Steve Maviglio, a Democratic consultant, called the Republicans’ prospects of undoing the Democrats’ two-thirds majority “remote.”

“Nobody expected the Democrats in the Assembly to get two-thirds, so we have a number of incumbents that are considered vulnerable,” Maviglio said. “But if you look at demographic trends and what the turnout would be, I think that most of our folks are in pretty good shape.”

The California Democratic Party has raised more than $9 million so far this year – more than three times more than the Republican Party raised – and it has a far larger donor base than Republicans to tap in an election year.

“Republicans simply don’t have the resources to play the field,” Maviglio said.

Republicans point out that second midterm elections of a presidency are historically good for the party out of the White House, and that even in Democratic California, Republicans have surged before. The party won eight Assembly seats in 1994.

Vidak said his victory is more recent “proof positive” that Republicans can win.

“Anything can happen,” he said. “I came out of the blue.”