When Democrats – perhaps surprising even themselves – won two-thirds supermajorities in both legislative houses last year, party subfactions began buzzing over how their new hegemony would be employed.
By and by, the chatter coalesced into two competing views, to wit:
Liberal activists saw the supermajorities as a historic opportunity to do things that had been blocked for years or even decades, such as placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot to modify Proposition 13 or raise some taxes. "Use it or lose it" became their mantra.
Legislative leaders wanted to proceed more cautiously, aware that actually assembling two-thirds votes for new taxes and other controversial steps would be difficult, and that appearing to overreach could invite voter backlash. "Abuse it and lose it" became their motto.
Caution won out. As maneuvering for 2014 legislative elections begins, survival or demise of the supermajorities will be the unspoken issue, especially in the Senate. Half of the 40 Senate districts – those with even numbers – will be voting for the first time following redistricting by an independent commission.
Of the 17 senators who'll be forced out of their seats by term limits next year, 14 are Democrats. The makeup of the 20 even-numbered districts indicates that Democrats' 29-seat supermajority could shrink, perhaps dropping below the magic 27-seat level.
It boils down to three districts that are in play.
If Republicans win all three, Democrats lose their Senate supermajority. If Democrats win just one, they keep it.
That would seem to give the advantage to Democrats. But one of those districts, in Orange County, has no incumbent and is almost certain to go Republican, while another in the rural San Joaquin and Salinas valleys has a strong Democratic voter edge but a Republican incumbent, Anthony Cannella, who has beaten partisan odds.
The third district in the lower San Joaquin Valley certainly would have remained Democratic had Sen. Michael Rubio not abruptly resigned early this year to become a corporate executive. That set up a special election, and Republican farmer Andy Vidak came within a few dozen votes of winning the seat outright as the anointed Democratic candidate, Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez, stumbled.
The two now will face each other in a runoff election in July. While Perez still enjoys a big Democratic voter margin, low turnout almost sank her this month and could be an even bigger factor in July as political interest withers under the hot summer sun.
If Vidak wins, the Democrats' Senate supermajority will be in jeopardy. If Perez wins, the supermajority will survive.
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