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By Tomas Ovalle/Special to The Californian
BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
State Sen.-elect Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, starts his new job representing the 16th Senate District next week.
He'll be trying to work with Democratic leaders who hold a super-majority in the state Senate and were -- until Wednesday -- fighting hard to make sure he didn't win the seat vacated by Democrat Michael Rubio in February.
Then, in just a few months, Vidak will have to start campaigning to defend the seat he won Tuesday from those same Democrats.
But for now, he can take a few days off to relax.
"Harvest is done," said Vidak, a cherry farmer. "I've got weeds to spray and trees to prune and irrigate. And I guess I've got to go buy some suits."
Sometime next week -- his campaign team isn't quite sure when -- he'll be sworn into office and see if he can keep his promise to try to open doors and craft practical partnerships with the Democratic leadership in Sacramento.
"The real work is just beginning," Vidak said.
Vidak won the seat outright in a field of five candidates including Kern County Supervisor and Democrat Leticia Perez by capturing 51.4 percent of the vote as of Wednesday's unofficial count.
Perez was second with 42.3 percent.
There were about 4,000 outstanding ballots in Fresno County Wednesday evening, not enough to change the outcome of the race.
Political observers on Wednesday gave a single-word answer when asked why Vidak won: Turnout.
"The Democrats need to focus on turnout in Kern," said former Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez, D-Shafter.
"Democrats don't turn out to vote," said Kern County Democratic Party chair Candi Easter.
Vidak campaign manager Tim Orman agreed turnout was everything in his client's win. The campaign set a target turnout from day one and tailored everything to getting that number of voters out.
Preliminary turnout numbers put the total turnout across the district at a measly 21 percent.
Turnout in Kern and Fresno counties, where Perez was strongest, was even lower. In Fresno County, 17 percent of registered voters cast ballots while 19.5 percent did in Kern.
Turnout was more than 32 percent in Vidak's home county of Kings and 25 percent in Tulare County.
Former Hanford Assemblywoman Nicole Parra, who counts both Vidak and Perez as friends, said Perez was handicapped by a number of factors that suppressed turnout and allowed Vidak to sweep in and steal the seat.
Perez, Parra said, lost a lot of Latino support in Kern County when she decided to run for the state Senate just a couple months after assuming the 5th District county supervisor's job.
"Voters were not inspired to vote, especially for someone they were only beginning to know," Parra said.
The fact few people in Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties knew Perez also make a huge impact, she said.
Nearly $2 million in campaign contributions and independent expenditures couldn't offset those inherent weaknesses in Perez's candidacy.
"When you use a million dollars to introduce yourself, you probably need an additional million dollars to tell people what you will do specifically," said Florez.
Easter was still shaken by Perez's loss on Wednesday as she headed to the Kern County elections office to observe the tally of uncounted ballots.
"I really didn't think this was going to happen. This is really shocking," she said.
Easter said the result of Vidak's win will be a loss of clout for Kern County in Sacramento.
"The sad thing about this is, and I know it's going to sound like sour grapes, but now we (will) have three Republicans who can't get a bill out of committee," she said.
Vidak will join Assemblywoman Shannon Grove and state Sen. Jean Fuller as Republicans representing a substantial chunk of Kern County. But unlike them, he will be representing a district with a majority of Latinos and Democrats.
The only South Valley Democrat currently at the state level is Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield.
Orman, Vidak's campaign manager, rejected the idea that the new state senator will be sidelined in Sacramento.
"I think he can be effective and be effective for the valley. It's not going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination," Orman said. "He's gotta do it. Any incumbent's election campaign is built around how they can do their job."
To have influence, he said, Vidak must be open to working with Democrats.
"He works his tail off," Orman said. "He's gotta keep raising money and keep talking to people and go up there and do what he promised to do."
Florez didn't see Vidak's charisma transcending the political realities in Sacramento.
This win "means a loss of clout for Kern County with the Senate majority," Florez said. "With an election around the corner, I can't see Senate leadership helping Vidak with a good committee chairmanship or giving him strong support for legislation that helps Kern yet makes him look good. So, I don't know how effective he will be as a state senator."
"Representing the Central Valley is very unique," she said. "If he works with all the Central Valley legislators, especially Henry T. Perea and Rudy Salas in the Assembly, on legislation, he can contribute a lot."
Vidak will ultimately have to answer to the voters -- and in short order.
In just more than a year, the new boundaries for state Senate districts in Kern County take effect and most of the 16th District -- including the sections in Kern and Vidak's home in Kings County -- becomes the 14th District.
Kern County takes a bigger share of the district, Fresno's influence shrinks and Democratic registration drops from 50 percent to 48 percent while Republican registration will hover around 30.5 percent.
Thomas Holyoke, associate professor of political science at Fresno State, said Democrats will need to learn from Tuesday night's defeat.
"Over the last 20 years, the Republicans have worked to build organization in the valley. What last night showed is that Democrats do not have the same level of organization," he said. "It really came down to who could put together the better ground game organization."
Parra said Democrats need to do some careful work before 2014 to pick the right candidate to challenge Vidak.
"The state Democratic Party needs to spend some time in the Central Valley now encouraging and recruiting people because there are a lot of great community leaders who would like to run," she said.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, suggested in a statement that Perez might run for higher office in the future.
"Special elections are unique voter-turnout environments, and this is clearly not the last we've heard of the immensely talented Supervisor Perez," he said in a statement reported by the Sacramento Bee.
But Perez told The Californian Wednesday that probably won't be in 2014.
"I seriously doubt it," she said in a text message. "Probably not a good idea."