Doubts raised for governor's pick

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Schwarzenegger's choice of moderate Republican Abel Maldonado for lieutenant governor is unwelcome news for two valley politicians seeking the same job in the 2010 election.

Atwater Republican state Sen. Jeff Denham — who is running for the GOP nomination — could suddenly find himself facing an incumbent in the primary. And state Sen. Dean Florez might have to square off against a tough Republican competitor in the general election — if he survives a fight in the Democratic primary, political analysts said.

Maldonado, a state senator from Santa Maria, first must be confirmed by the Democrat- controlled Legislature in what looks to be an uphill fight. Lawmakers have 90 days to act on the appointment. Maldonado would replace Democrat John Garamendi, who was elected to Congress.

Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, on Tuesday said he had "grave doubts" about filling the job with a sitting lawmaker. In a statement, he cited the "more than $2 million" he said it would cost to hold a special election to fill Maldonado's Senate seat — money he said would be better spent defraying recent university fee hikes.

"The voters will elect a new lieutenant governor to a four-year term less than one year from now," said Steinberg, who is second in line to the governor's job as long as the lieutenant governor's seat is vacant. "It may be both fiscally and politically prudent to permit the people to make their own selection for this statewide office."

Florez, D-Shafter, made similar comments, predicting in a statement that "I don't see the Senate confirming him."

Political analyst Tony Quinn speculated that Florez's concerns were more political than financial, driven by a desire to keep a potential competitor out of the office.

If confirmed, Maldonado would serve the rest of Garamendi's term through the end of 2010. He said Tuesday there's a "good chance" he'd run for a full term.

Maldonado would face a tough primary fight in June, where his recent vote for temporary tax hikes might turn off conservative voters.

Denham's chief competitor now is state Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Penn Valley. Both men voted against the taxes, which were approved by the Legislature in February and aimed at closing the state's budget gap.

"In a GOP primary, the tax vote is a fatal vote for Abel," said political strategist Kevin Spillane, who is working for Denham.

But it's possible that Denham and Aanestad could split the conservative vote, opening the door for Maldonado to win with strong independent support, said Larry Gerston, a San Jose State University political science professor. Independents are allowed to vote in the GOP primary.

Maldonado, the son of immigrant field workers, "has the potential of drawing in disproportionate numbers of Latinos and that could be intriguing," Gerston said.

Schwarzenegger — who announced his pick Monday on "The Jay Leno Show" — touted Maldonado on Tuesday as a "pragmatist, a reformer" and a "model of post-partisanship."

Maldonado would likely run on such themes if he made it to the general election, where California voters have a history of favoring Democrats in downticket races. A Democrat such as Florez "would have to worry a little bit about (losing) constituencies that heretofore have been in the Democratic camp," Gerston said.

But Democratic strategist Steve Maviglio said Maldon-ado was still too conservative for California voters on issues such as the environment. The senator scored a 44 percent out of possible 100 percent on a legislative scorecard by the California League of Conservation Voters.

For Florez, his immediate task is besting Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn in the Democratic primary. Hahn, the sister of former Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn, enjoys high name recognition in voter-rich Southern California.

Maviglio called the race "wide open."