Near-wins for Assembly Republicans prompt talk of missed chances

jmiller@sacbee.comNovember 27, 2013 

Only 329 votes stood between Assembly Republicans and an upset special election victory last week in the San Fernando Valley’s 45th Assembly District.

In September, a Republican-newly-turned-independent finished just 400 votes behind the Democratic candidate in the Inland Empire’s 52nd Assembly District.

Wins in both seats would have eliminated Assembly Democrats’ two-thirds supermajority in the lower house. While Democrats eked out victories in districts where they have large registration advantages, an Assembly Republican caucus that regularly bemoans Democrats’ Capitol dominance mostly sat out the races.

Last week’s close finish has prompted grumbling in some Republican circles of another missed chance to increase the party’s legislative relevance and give a morale-boosting shot in the arm to the California GOP heading into an election year. In a special ballot in July, Senate Republicans picked up a Central Valley seat with strong Democratic leanings.

“Unfortunately, we did miss an opportunity there,” Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee, said of last week’s outcome in the 45th, where Democrat Matt Dababneh has declared victory over Republican Susan Shelley. Shelley has until Monday to request a recount.

“I don’t think anybody could have predicted that turnout was going to be that low,” Jones said. “When turnout is that low, Republicans tend to turn out to vote and Democrats don’t.”

Jones and others, though, note that Democrats would have responded to any Republican attempt to move money and resources into the Assembly race.

Democratic strategist Roger Salazar said last week’s election was an uncomfortably close call for Democrats. President Barack Obama had carried the district by almost 30 percentage points in 2012.

“This was as close as they were going to get,” Salazar said of Republicans. “Had the Republicans put any visible effort into it, Democrats would have countered and the result would have been the same.”

Woodland Hills author Shelley, the Republican candidate in the 45th, said her positions as a fiscal conservative with moderate views on social issues matched those of district voters. Ontario Mayor Paul Leon, a longtime Republican who registered no-party-preference before becoming a candidate in the 52nd, said he meshed well with voters there.

Some Republicans, though, said the party would have had no chance at holding either seat next November, given the makeup of the districts. The party also has much less money to throw around than Democrats, they said.

Yet other Republicans have noted that either a Shelley or a Leon victory would have helped GOP fundraising. Democrats also would have to divert resources to win back the seats while protecting vulnerable incumbents elsewhere. And recent polls suggest a tough political landscape for Democrats next year.

In a statement, Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway said recent election results show that Republicans will have a good year in 2014.

“We had strong candidates who fit their districts and we were competitive in seats that Republicans have traditionally had no showing,” Conway, R-Tulare, said. “We are recruiting candidates and building the infrastructure in seats we can win and hold in 2014 and beyond.”

Democrats reached two-thirds majorities in both houses last November. Since then, seven Assembly and Senate districts have gone vacant after their occupants resigned to take other offices or go into the private sector.

Most of the subsequent special elections to fill the vacancies have had little drama. But new political lines, top-two primaries, and low turnout have contributed to Democratic heartburn in some races.

In May, Bakersfield Democrat Leticia Perez barely made it into a runoff against Hanford Republican Andy Vidak in the 16th Senate District to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Michael Rubio. Vidak went on to defeat Perez in July.

That same night, in the 52nd, Pomona Democrat Freddie Rodriguez made it into the September runoff against Leon. Rodriguez’ finish followed a late $139,000 infusion of Democratic cash after private polls reportedly showed that Leon and Dorothy Pineda of Ontario, the sole Republican in the race, would finish ahead of any of the seven Democrats in the contest.

Republicans also recognized the possibility – that same scenario played out in June 2012 in the nearby 31st Congressional District – but Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino, was the only Assembly Republican who donated to Pineda. Leon was on his own in the runoff, with GOP rules apparently preventing help for someone who was not a registered Republican.

Leon called Republicans “shortsighted” and said the caucus never approached him. Rodriguez’ campaign, though, “was in it to win it with everything they had,” Leon said. “They were well aware of what would happen if I won.”

In the 45th, state records show Shelley receiving campaign contributions from Conway as well as Assembly members Jeff Gorell, R-Camarillo, and Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita. Shelley declined to say whether she had asked for additional assistance.

“We’re all aggravated,” she said. “To lose an election by 329 votes is always aggravating. I’m sure Democrats are aggravated, too.”

Call Jim Miller, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5521. Follow him on Twitter @jimmiller2.

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