Local Politics

Wednesday, Nov 07 2012 06:29 PM

Salas-Rios nail-biter a replay of 2002

BY ANTONIE BOESSENKOOL Californian staff writer aboessenkool@bakersfield.com

Rudy Salas and Pedro Rios remained neck-and-neck in the pivotal 32nd Assembly District race Wednesday, results eerily reminiscent of a famously close contest in the area a decade ago.

Democrat Salas held a slim 268-vote lead over Republican Rios with potentially thousands of ballots remaining uncounted. But if election night trends hold true, Rios faces an uphill battle to win, according to an analysis by The Californian.

REPLAY

Former three-term Democratic Assemblywoman Nicole Parra said the close race was like "deja vu." When she first ran for her 30th Assembly District seat -- which had boundaries similar to the new 32nd's -- in 2002, she beat Republican businessman Dean Gardner by 266 votes.

That's just a two-vote difference from where Salas and Rios stood Wednesday.

The Parra-Gardner race took weeks to resolve, after Parra filed a federal lawsuit over how to count votes most accurately. Parra said Salas' position Wednesday boded well for him.

"Rudy being ahead helps him so much at this point," Parra said. That Salas has a majority of votes counted so far in Kern County, where there are more votes left to be tallied than in Kings County, also helps him, she said.

The district includes all of Kings County and a northwestern section of Kern County as well as parts of east Bakersfield and Arvin and Lamont.

Even so, Republicans could challenge Salas being sworn in if he wins by such a slim margin, she said. That's what happened in Parra's 2002 win.

The district is made up of two very different constituencies -- conservative and Republican Kings County and more Democratic and progressive parts of Kern County. That makes it a tough district for either side to win decisively, she said.

RESULTS SO FAR

As of Wednesday morning, Salas had 29,559 votes and Rios had 29,291. Another update of Kern County numbers isn't expected until Monday.

Elections administrators said there were 35,000 vote-by-mail ballots to count and 14,000 to 15,000 provisional ballots to process in Kern County. Provisional ballots are cast when the eligibility of a person to vote is in question. Not all of them may count.

And not all the outstanding ballots are in the 32nd Assembly District. Assuming the fraction of outstanding ballots in Kern County that are from the 32nd matches the fraction of the already-counted votes from the district in Kern County, there could be just more than 8,500 votes left to be counted in Kern County for this race.

Salas had 59.7 percent of Kern County votes Wednesday. Rios had 59 percent of the Kings County vote.

In Kings, there were 20 vote-by-mail ballots left to count and about 1,500 provisional ballots to process.

But even if Rios gets all remaining Kings County votes, as long as Salas keeps his margin in Kern County, Salas will win, according to The Californian's analysis.

Republican organizers could have made a bigger push in the district for Rios, said veteran political analyst Allan Hoffenblum.Although the Rios campaign saw a lot of late financial support, Rios was still "well outspent" by Salas, he said.

The 32nd District "was one where, for whatever reason, (Republicans) did not do a full-court press. ... Because of that, it could be allowing the Dems to have their super-majority."

POTENTIAL SUPER-MAJORITY

If Salas wins, that could solidify a two-thirds "super-majority" for Democrats in the Assembly and state Senate.

That would mean Democrats wouldn't need Republican votes to pass tax increases. Gov. Jerry Brown, however, said he would take future tax hikes to voters, according to the Associated Press.

But even if Salas and other Democrats help create a supermajority, it doesn't guarantee those same Democrats will automatically pass future tax increases, Parra and Hoffenblum said. Salas, who opposed the governor's Proposition 30 tax increase, is an example of that.

"Look how many Dems represent swing districts, because those are the Dems that are going to be very wary of tax increases," Parra said.

VICTORY?

"It won't be close at all," said Bob Sanders, Salas' campaign adviser.

Yet, the campaign wouldn't be declaring Salas the winner just yet, he said.

"The outstanding number of ballots in Kern County, given the fact that Rudy Salas is maintaining a 20-point lead on Pedro Rios in Kern ... means that it will be very difficult for Rios to win," Sanders said. "Whatever happens in these remaining ballots of Kings County isn't going to change much."

"Now it's just a matter of waiting for all the votes to be counted," Rios said Wednesday. "Obviously Salas has the lead, (but) anything is possible. ... Even if it was the other way around (with Rios having a slight lead), I would still be nervous."

The 32nd Assembly race was one of just four that the state Democratic Party targeted to take back from Republican hands, and Rios said of those, his had the biggest registration advantage -- 20 percentage points -- in the Democrats' favor. Considering that, Rios said, his campaign did quite well.

But attack ads Salas put out caused damage, he said.

"They were successful with those attacks, without a doubt," especially with voters who may not have known much about the race, Rios said.

"It was a tough battle," Rios said. "We're just going to wait and see what happens."

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