There are still some votes to be counted, but it appears certain that Republican rancher Andy Vidak has captured a San Joaquin Valley state Senate seat, and in doing so placed the Democrats' Senate supermajority in peril.
The resignation of Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio to become an oil company executive created the vacancy. Vidak edged Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez in the May primary and she conceded to him, but when all the votes had been counted, he had fallen just short of winning the seat outright.
The ensuing runoff campaign drew millions of dollars in direct and indirect campaign spending because everyone knew that the Democrats' retention of the supermajority they won last year was potentially at stake. Two-thirds supermajorities allow Democrats, at least in theory, to pass tax increases and constitutional amendments without Republican support.
Democrats began the year with 29 Senate seats, but Rubio's resignation and that of two other Democrats elected to Congress dropped it to 26, one short of a 27-seat supermajority. Both of those other two seats were quickly filled by other Democrats, but Rubio's seat remained vacant, and still another Democratic senator resigned to become a Los Angeles city councilman.
Assuming that Vidak wins, therefore, Democrats still have 27 seats and the certainty that the Los Angeles district will elect another Democrat, raising their total to 28. But that's where matters become dicey.
Republicans are virtually certain to pick up one seat next year in Riverside County and are favored to win another in Orange County.
To retain even a 27-seat supermajority, therefore, Democrats would have to win in Orange County, unseat Vidak or defeat Republican Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres.
The prospect that Democrats could lose the supermajority next year then raises another question:
Will Democrats try to pass taxes and constitutional amendments before the 2014 election, while they still hold a supermajority?
Liberal activists want action on several fronts, such as pursuing a constitutional amendment that would partially unwind Proposition 13, the state's landmark property tax limit, or perhaps directly raising some taxes – such as those on cigarettes and oil extraction.
They've chanted "use it or lose it" about the supermajorities in both legislative houses.
However, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and other Democratic leaders – including Gov. Jerry Brown – have been leery about trying to raise taxes again. And there are several moderate, pro-business Democratic senators who are not eager to raise taxes.
The ranks of those moderates may be thinned in next year's elections as well, due to term limits, thus adding still another dimension to the situation.