LOS ANGELES (AP) — California voters narrowed the field in each of the state’s 80 Assembly races and 20 Senate contests on the ballot Tuesday as Republicans aim to chip away at solid Democratic majorities, and Democrats look to bolster their ranks.
The legislative primaries set up high-stakes matchups for the November runoff, when the outcome will determine how far Democrats and left-leaning interest groups can push in their quest to put California on the vanguard of progressive economic, environmental and social policies.
Democrats currently control 52 of 80 Assembly seats and 26 of 40 Senate seats. Adding two in the Assembly and one in the Senate would give Democrats enough votes to raise taxes without Republican support.
Early results showed Republican incumbents holding strong in the most closely divided districts currently in GOP hands.
“For us, this particular year, the goal is for us to be able to hold onto the 28 seats that we’ve got,” Assembly Minority Leader Chad Mayes, R-Yucca Valley, said after initial results came in. “This evening, we’re positioned in a great spot for us to be able to do that.”
While nothing is decided until November, Tuesday’s results cull the field from hundreds of candidates to two per district — sometimes from the same party — and give an early indication of who has momentum as the general election begins.
In California’s top-two primary, all voters get the same ballot and the top two finishers advance, regardless of party.
After a respectable showing by the GOP in 2014, Republicans are now on the defensive, particularly in the swing districts of Orange County and the Inland Empire. The GOP is fighting to hold onto several seats picked up from Democrats two years ago, including those held by Assembly members Catharine Baker of Dublin, David Hadley of Torrance, Young Kim of Fullerton, Eric Linder of Corona and Marc Steinorth of Redlands.
All are districts that supported Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 general elections.
“I expect much higher voter turnout in November, which tends to help Democrats,” said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount. “It bodes well for us, but we have a lot of work to do.”
Elsewhere, in districts that strongly favor one side or the other, the fight is within the parties.
Business interests, oil companies and charter school advocates have opened their pockets to strengthen a group of moderate Democrats who’ve been successful in tempering their party’s more liberal wing and staved off environmental regulations and business mandates.
Unions and environmental groups are fighting back with big spending of their own after seeing their most ambitious ideas stymied.
“Even though they both have a D next to their name, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be voting the same way,” said Mark Keppler, a public affairs professor and director of the Maddie Institute at California State University, Fresno.
Some of the most intense ideological battles are playing out in the Inland Empire and the San Francisco Bay area.
Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, a moderate Democrat from San Bernardino, was leading attorney Eloise Gomez-Reyes, who is challenging her from the left, and Republican Aissa Chanel Sanchez. Democratic Sen. Jim Beall of San Jose had a solid lead, with two challengers who were closely matched in a fight for second place, Democratic Assemblywoman Nora Campos and Republican Chuck Page.
Among Republicans, open seats in conservative areas have drawn strong interest. Eight Republicans are vying to replace Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, of Rocklin, in the Sacramento suburbs, five are eying Assemblyman Don Wagner’s Orange County seat, and three are running in the Modesto area to take over from Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen. All three races have Democratic candidates who could slip into the top two if Republican voters are split.
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