2004 - A Republican Year? (Well, Maybe)

by Tony Quinn
Feb. 1, 2004
We have heard this song before; Republicans are perched for takeoff to vastly increase their numbers in the legislature - which for the past 35 yeas, with a single exception, has been controlled by Democrats. GOP leaders sound very optimistic, so it's worth taking a look at how the races shape up in the early line.

Republicans do have a little different argument this year; in the person of a fellow named Arnold Schwarzenegger who blew apart conventional political wisdom in California in 2003 just like he'd like to blow apart the boxes of bureaucracy as governor in 2004. Schwarzenegger's massive win in the 2003 recall, and his showing in numerous Democratic-held legislative districts, several of which are open due to term limits in 2004, may change the equation.

Here's the outlook for legislative change as we approach the March primary. Of the 20 State Senate seats up this year, 16 are safe for the incumbent party. The most heated State Senate contest is likely to be the 5th district in Stockton and Yolo-Solano Counties where Democratic Sen. Mike Machado will face Stockton Mayor Gary Podesto. This will be a barnburner and may be the most expensive legislative race in California history before it is over.

GOP Assemblyman Able Maldonado is favored to hold the Republican 15th district that runs from Santa Maria to San Jose along the coast, but he could face a tough race from San Luis Obispo Supervisor Peg Penard, a Democrat. Democratic Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal is probably an easy winner in the Long Beach Senate district Democrat Betty Karnette must give up, and Democratic Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe is favored in San Diego's 39th district, but she does face former Sen. Larry Stirling, a Republican. Schwarzenegger carried all four of these districts by a wide margin.

So the GOP could pick a Senate seat or two depending on whether Schwarzenegger's popularity carries into these districts next November.

In the Assembly, Republicans will defend three districts they narrowly won in 2002, Guy Houston in the 15th district (Contra Costa), Shirley Horton in the 78th district (San Diego) and Bonnie Garcia in the 80th district (Riverside-Imperial Counties). Right now the incumbents are the favorites in each of these districts. Republicans are safe in the other 29 GOP seats.

Democrats could be defending as many as 11 of their seats, depending on how well the GOP can fund its candidates and the results in some Democratic primaries.

Perhaps the most vulnerable incumbent in the state is Assemblywoman Nicole Parra in the 30th district (Fresno-Bakersfield). She will face GOP businessman Dean Gardner whom she beat by only 266 votes in 2002. Assemblywoman Barbara Mathews (Stockton-Merced County) is a perennial target, and the GOP likes it candidate against Assemblywoman Carol Liu in Pasadena, so those incumbents could be targeted as well.

Republicans may take a close look at Assemblywoman Gloria Negrete McLeod who was not tested in 2002, and they like their candidate, Ontario City Councilman Alan Wapner. Both the recall and Schwarzenegger exceeded their statewide totals in this possibly marginal district.

A fascinating situation is developing in the Mid-Peninsula 21st District, vacated by Assemblyman Joe Simitian. Here a hot Democratic primary winner will face a billionaire Republican (that billionaire with a "b") named Steve Poizner who has already put aside $600,000 for the fall campaign, but the district is heavily Democratic on paper.

Possibly the most likely open seat to change hands is the Long Beach-Palos Verdes district Lowenthal is vacating. Sen. Betty Karnette is trying to return to the Assembly but will face former Congressman Steve Kuykendall who defeated her 10 years ago. This seat now leans Republican.

Republicans would like to mount a serious challenge in the open seat Kehoe is vacating along the San Diego coast and have a strong candidate in former Assemblywoman Tricia Hunter. The Democratic nominee depends on the outcome of a three-way primary.

Other open seats on the GOP wish list include the 31st district in Fresno which Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes is leaving, the 35th district in Santa Barbara being vacated by Assemblywoman Hannah Beth Jackson, the 53rd district in Torrance where George Nakano is retiring, and the 69th district of term limited Lou Correa in Santa Ana. But Democrats have strong candidates for each of these districts, and are currently favored.

So the early line is some possibility of GOP gains, but a lot depends on that Schwarzenegger fellow. And he has some heavy lifting before we get to the fall campaign. The governor cannot afford to lose his bond issue-budget amendment on the March ballot, Propositions 57-58. Not only would it cause a huge fiscal crisis, but his ability to "go to the people" would be badly compromised. His impact on legislative races depends very much on his popularity and clout come September. March will have a lot to do with that.

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