BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Early polling that helped Democrats and Republicans choose sides in the developing 16th Senate District special election show a distinct chance for Republicans to seize a seat that's been Democratic for more than a decade.
And pundits think that's about right.
While the polls haven't been released publicly, their basic details are being widely discussed on both sides.
They show that Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez, who has won a higher office than fellow Democratic candidate Fran Florez and secured the backing of state Democratic Party leaders, has a better shot at beating Republican hopeful Andy Vidak one-on one.
But Florez, a Shafter city councilwoman, has a higher profile in voter-heavy Fresno County and could knock Perez out of the race in the May 21 primary, according to the polls.
The abrupt resignation of state Sen. Michael Rubio in February caused all this political jockeying.
Rubio was the southern San Joaquin Valley's most prominent Democratic legislator and his exit left state party leaders with a very attractive job in a Democratic district and a lot of interested candidates.
But there were few obvious choices.
"We spoke with a half-dozen potential candidates," wrote Jason Kinney, a spokesman for state Senate Democrats. "We were surprised when Senator Rubio resigned and we preferred to avoid a thoughtless free-for-all."
In the end, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and the majority of the other Democratic senators backed 36-year-old Perez.
"Yes, we polled comprehensively. And, yes, voters in this district indicated a strong preference for a moderate Latina with a fresh name and a young family," Kinney said.
"The specific results were not shared with any prospective candidate and will remain private. The decision to embrace Leticia's candidacy was based on our assessment that she is both the best candidate and will be the best senator."
Other Democrats dropped out. Florez jumped in -- with the strong backing of her son Dean, who held the seat from 2002 to 2010
Basic details of the polls -- if not specifics -- have leaked out throughout the district, which runs from Arvin and Lamont in Kern County north through Kings and Tulare counties to Fresno.
Tal Cloud, a Republican political analyst from Fresno, said he's heard the same story on polling from both the Republican and Democratic camps.
The polls show, he said, that Florez, 69, has a better chance of surviving the open primary and facing Vidak in the July special general election.
That's because Fresno County has more Democrats than any other county in the district and Florez has been around statewide political circles as a Shafter councilwoman and member of the California High-Speed Rail Authority for years.
"She's worked the Fresno part of the district where Perez isn't known," Cloud said. "People know she's not a bomb thrower like Dean."
But polls show Perez, he said, has a better shot against Vidak.
That makes sense, said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which analyzes state races.
He said with two prominent Democrats running, "Vidak wins the primary."
"Then the dynamics completely change," Hoffenblum said. "Perez has the better shot. She's battlefield-tested and she's proven to be electable."
Fran Florez has twice won Democratic primary races for the 30th Assembly District seat, only to lose to a Republican in the general election.
Cloud thinks Vidak actually has a chance to take the seat in the primary by winning one vote more than half of those cast -- the "50 percent, plus one" standard.
"I think Andy wins in the primary," Cloud said.
He argues that, traditionally, turnout is low in primary elections and will be even worse in a special election.
As a share of Democratic registration, the percentage of votes Rubio received in the 2010 primary was between 5 and 14 percent lower than the ratio of votes to registration Republicans collected in the same counties, according to a Californian analysis.
And while Florez and Perez have each other to contend with, Republicans have united behind Vidak, who made a strong showing against veteran Democrat Jim Costa of Fresno in their 2010 congressional race, Cloud said.
Hoffenblum thinks Vidak will get the most votes in the primary, but not win outright.
While Democrats' 2010 turnout numbers were weak, he said, there was no Democratic competition for Rubio and the up-ticket races for positions such as governor were quiet. Democrats had no incentive to go to the polls.
In this case, Hoffenblum said, the conflict between Perez and Florez might energize voters and increase turnout.
"The two Dems will probably create quite a lot of interest in the race," he said, and that helps Democrats keep the race alive through July 23.
Florez rejected the idea she is risking the seat by running against Perez against the wishes of the Senate Democrats. She said the Senate Democrats are choosing the person they like and aren't comfortable with her independence.
Florez surmised Perez might be easier for them to deal with.
Kinney countered that.
"Leticia Perez was universally viewed as the most impressive potential candidate. Her story, her dedication, her intellect and her youthful enthusiasm for the challenges ahead were qualities that shined through," he said. "While Leticia's politics are more conservative than many Senate Democrats, we clearly saw a value system that will lead to decisions made with integrity, despite the fact that she won't be in lock-step with us on every issue."
For Perez, the timing of her decision to run may be her biggest liability.
Some Democrats who supported her for county supervisor are offended that just three months after being sworn in, she is seeking higher office.
Fifth District Democrat Robin Boel said she voted for Perez for supervisor.
Now she's just angry.
"For her to say, 'Well, they needed me up there,'" Boel said. "No, they didn't. We needed you to do your job here first."
She's not happy with Rudy Salas for quitting the Bakersfield City Council mid-term to run for state Assembly, or Rubio for abandoning his Senate seat.
"That made me mad, too," she said of Rubio. "I know why he did it. He was going for the money. They're all going for the money."
Perez said that she remains committed to providing the 5th District with the best service she can.
"I honestly and truly believe, from the center of my being, that I can do more for the residents of Arvin, Lamont and east Bakersfield at the senate level than I can at the county level," Perez said.
Doris Morrow, a Democrat who lives just down the street from Boel, was more resigned about the moves politicians are making from seat to seat.
"That seems to be the way of the world these days," she said. "They move pretty fast."
In the end, the person who wins the 16th District seat, Hoffenblum said, won't be dictated by the polls but by the kind of race they conduct.
"Early polls are mostly mainly name recognition polls," he said. "Campaigns do have an impact."
Cloud echoed the thought.
"A poll is only as good as the questions that were asked," he said.
Hoffenblum said the fact that the Democrat who makes it into the general election will be a bit battered when he or she gets there doesn't mean the party won't pull together and fight to keep the Senate seat in Democratic hands.
"I've been involved in heated interparty fights and in the end we all get together and sing Kumbaya and try to win the thing," he said.