SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California Democrats are looking to regain supermajorities in the state Legislature that would allow them to govern without Republicans, an endeavor that will play out this November in a handful of swing districts where Republicans and Democrats are close to evenly matched.
Another major impact on the state’s future political direction will be the decisions of voters in more liberal, overwhelmingly Democratic districts, where a pitched ideological battle is playing out within the Democratic Party.
The election comes as the Legislature is near a high point in its popularity, with 47 percent of Californians approving of its performance, according to a September survey by the Public Policy Institute of California. That’s among the highest approval ratings PPIC has recorded for the Legislature, and it could bode well for incumbents, said President Mark Baldassare.
Here’s a look at the districts that will determine the Legislature’s policies and priorities in the next two years:
Democrats will need to pick up at least two GOP-controlled Assembly seats and one in the Senate to reach the coveted two-thirds majority, with the battles primarily in Orange County and Inland Empire districts.
Five GOP Assembly members are playing defense in districts that typically vote Democratic. Marc Steinorth of Rancho Cucamonga, Eric Linder of Corona, Young Kim of Fullerton and David Hadley of Torrance are most endangered. All represent districts that voted for Obama, and all received fewer votes in the June primary than their Democratic rivals.
“Their fight is to prevent a supermajority and maintain some degree of relevance,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. “If they can do that, that’s a win.”
Kim and Hadley face rematches against the then-incumbent Democrats they defeated two years ago, Sharon Quirk-Silva and Al Muratsuchi, respectively.
Democrats are relentlessly attacking the Republicans over presidential nominee Donald Trump, hoping to ensure voters motivated to turn out against him also reject other Republicans.
In the East San Francisco Bay Area, freshman Republican Catharine Baker of Dublin benefited two years ago from extremely low turnout and a tense split in the local Democratic Party. Democrats are united behind Cheryl Cook-Kallio, a retired teacher and former Pleasanton City Council member.
Baker has sided with Democrats on high-profile votes including right-to-die and global warming, so Democrats have responded with a website highlighting all the times she’s sided with the GOP.
The GOP is also defending seats left open by term-limited lawmakers or those seeking other offices.
In the Senate, Democrats are eyeing the vacant District 21 seat held by Sen. Sharon Runner who died in July. Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, faces Democrat Johnathon Ervin, an Air Force veteran and engineer for defense contractor Raytheon. Voters here tend to narrowly support the GOP, but Ervin could benefit if anti-Trump sentiment drives more liberal voters to turn out.
To the south, the northern Orange County seat currently held by term-limited Sen. Bob Huff gives Democrats a potential pickup with its almost even split of Republican and Democratic voters. Republican Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang of Diamond Bar faces Democrat Josh Newman, who runs a nonprofit that helps veterans seek employment.
The GOP’s best hope for a pickup is in Senate District 25, which includes Burbank, Pasadena and Glendale, where Democratic former Assemblyman Anthony Portantino was expected to easily win but faces a strong challenge from well-known Republican Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich.
In the Assembly, Democrats hope to pick up District 35 along the Central Coast, now represented by term-limited Republican Katcho Achadjian, where Democrat Dawn Ortiz-Legg won the primary and faces Republican Jordan Cunningham.
DEMOCRATIC CIVIL WAR
California’s primary system, in which the top two finishers advance to the general election, has created 11 Assembly districts and five Senate districts where both candidates are Democrats. Three Assembly districts are Republican-on-Republican contests.
The Democratic races highlight ideological and cultural tensions between two wings of the party. In several races, liberals who are eager to take on global warming, spend more money to fight poverty and open to raising taxes are running against business-minded Democrats who say taxes and regulations might dampen the economy.
Environmental advocates and some unions have targeted Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernardino, who they blame for watering down environmental and labor regulations. She’s facing a tough challenge from attorney Eloise Gomez Reyes.
There are similar dynamics in the open East Bay seat between Tim Grayson, who is backed by charter-school advocates, and union-supported Mae Torlakson.
In the Senate, groups on the left are rallying around Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, who is fending off term-limited Assemblywoman Nora Campos.
“If the Democrats achieve a supermajority, they’re still not going to have a body with two-thirds votes on economic and business-related issues,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics the University of Southern California. “But the outcome of those (Democrat-on-Democrat) races will have a major impact on how those types of issues get resolved next year.”