California Republicans Fear Worst in State Legislative Races

By Roberta Barth | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

( - It's the California Republican Party's worst nightmare: Democrats get the required two-thirds majority to pass a Congressional reapportionment bill and the state budget without the need of a single GOP vote.

Currently, Republicans hold 15 state Senate seats while the Democrats hold 24. In the state Assembly, Republicans hold 32 seats to the Democrats 46 with one previously-Democratic seat vacant and one Independent seat.

The worst case scenario will become a reality if Republicans lose two key Senate seats. The candidates are in a bare-knuckles political fight that will go down to the wire with record-breaking spending totaling more than $10 million collectively.

The District Seven and 29 Senate races have Senate leaders from both parties as major contributors. Neither the Chairman of the Republican Caucus, James Brulte, nor the Democratic President Pro Tempore, John Burton, would comment.
In District 7, which is the east Bay Area's Contra Costa County, Democratic Assemblyman Tom Torlakson is challenging incumbent Republican Senator Dick Rainey. District 29, which is eastern Los Angeles County, has Republican Assemblyman Bob Margett and Democratic Councilman Richard Melendez competing for the vacated Senate seat.

In both districts, the Democratic candidates are hammering their opponents on gun issues with television ads and mailers depicting gun violence, the Republican candidates' acceptance of contributions from the gun manufacturing industry and their record on gun control issues. The strategy is working.

The jitters run deep for the Republican Party because Torlakson received 3,000 votes more than Rainey did in the primary. Rainey also squeaked by his 1996 opponent by only 600 votes. The district has 36 percent registered Republican voters, 44 percent registered Democrats, and 20 percent registered as Independents or members of other parties.

Torlakson's campaign has emphasized Rainey's policy of selling confiscated guns rather than destroying them when Rainey was a sheriff 14 years ago.

"The Democrats are demonizing me," Rainey said. "All sheriff's offices sold confiscated guns to dealers because of budget cuts. What's really scary is that we are going to be outspent and his scare tactics might work. This is about the Democrats wanting to completely control the Legislature."

Torlakson defends his campaign, saying he has merely presented the truth. He points out that the Democrats have had the majority in the Legislature with a Democratic governor and California's economy is the best it has been.

Margett disagrees that the good economy is the result of the Democrats' policies. He says Republicans have provided the checks and balances.

"If the Democrats win the two Senate seats, then we (Republicans) will be nothing more than appendages," Margett said. "Then what will stop [Senate President Pro Tempore] Burton on his liberal causes?"

Nonsense, says Bob Mulholland, California Democratic Party chairman. He says the Republicans are crying foul rather than campaigning on the issues.

"Thirteen Republicans will no longer qualify them for a caucus," Mulholland said. "They'll have to give them a tiny room and that is their real fear. Who is going to return their calls?"

The state GOP acknowledges that the stakes are high because of the potential ramifications of a two-thirds majority effect on a Congressional reapportionment bill. Democrats would be able to use the 2000 census figures to re-carve California's Congressional districts according to their geographic and demographic advantages.

While California's constitution only requires a simple majority to approve a reapportionment bill, a two-thirds Democratic majority would leave Republicans out of the loop because they would be legally prohibited from ordering a public referendum.

"If that happened, the voters would no have options," said Jon Fleischman, executive director of California's Republican Party. "We could go to court and ask the judge to make it fair, but it's better for the voters to have the recourse in the Legislature."

Fleischman added that his party is working diligently to help the two Republican candidates in the vulnerable races. He acknowledges that Democratic fundraising in California for state offices has been superior to the GOP effort, which devoted most of its funds to the presidential candidacy of George W. Bush.

Mulholland said that decision was the turning point in the state races.

"The irony is that we focused on state races while the Republicans banked on Bush," Mulholland said. "I predict that we will win those two Senate seats and we'll be up to 50 seats in the assembly."

Margett says he has walked his precinct to counter the Democrat message.

"It's just unbelievable what scare tactics the Democrats are using and they are lying," Margett said. "I have never opposed stopping cop killer bullets and my record proves it. This is the Democrats strategy to get absolute control."

Melendez, who is also a Los Angeles police officer, argues that Margett's voting records prove that the allegations are true and that the race has nothing to do with a Democratic agenda.

"Running against Bob Margett is personal," Melendez said. "I want to come home safely to my family. Republicans are the masters of dirty tricks and they have the gall to accuse us of playing their game against them."
The Democrats have focused on District 29 because the once strong Republican basin underwent a dramatic shift to Democrats and Independents during the past six years due in part to the influx of Asian and Latin migration into that region after the recession in 1991. The end of the Cold War shut down the military bases and the defense air, space industry, costing 700,000 jobs. A mass departure from the region saw the new residents shift the scales toward Democratic and Independent registrations.