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Jon Fleischman

Democrat Vacancies Present GOP Legislators With A Significant Opportunity

The impressive victory of conservative rancher Andy Vidak in the recent State Senate special election in the Central Valley’s 16th District gives the State Capitol’s other 36 Republican legislators a reason to be unified, focused and determined as they return to Sacramento for the five week or so final sprint to the end of the 2013 session.  Come the next session in January, Democrats should go into the year with full super-majority complements of 28 State Senators and 55 Assemblymembers.  But for the rest of this session, Democrats will barely have a two-thirds majority in the Senate, and will not have it at all in the Assembly.

In the State Senate, due to the election of Curren Price to the Los Angeles City Council, there will be a vacancy that won’t be filled until September 17.  In the State Assembly there are two vacancies.  With the election of Norma Torres to the State Senate, her Assembly seat will not be filled until a special election, also on September 17.  Also, with the election of Bob Blumenfield to the L.A. City Council, his Assembly seat will not be filled until November 17.  None of these vacancies will be filled before this year’s legislative session is history on September 13.

Republicans have an opportunity to demonstrate to all of the relevant stakeholders and observers that they are not a party “fading to irrelevance,” but one that is on the verge of turning the tide  — GOP donors, those in the third house with right-of-center leanings, as well as political pundits and the media will all be watching.

The prime opportunity is in the lower chamber where Democrats won’t have a two-thirds majority at all the rest of this session. There Republicans can seize this opportunity to stop a lot of bad legislation in play that could otherwise pass on a super-majority vote, including tax increases.   There are also a lot of “rules of the house” that require two-thirds votes, and 25 Republicans working in concert together in the Assembly are assured of stopping all of those.  Of course, without 54 votes, the Democrats cannot extend the Assembly session out beyond the September 13 cut-off.

In the State Senate, where technically Democrats still have a block of 27 votes — a super-majority — the devil is in the details.  If the upper chamber’s 12 Republicans, now including Mr. Vidak, can demonstrate unity as a caucus, it means that every single Democrat vote will be needed to pass bad legislation requiring a two-thirds vote.  Of course Democrats are not monolithic all of the time, and it would be a herculean task on ultra-liberal Senate President Darrell Steinberg to twist the arms of some of the more “reasonable” members of the Democratic Caucus.  To understand the challenge before Steinberg you need look no further than the anecdotal case of Senator Lou Correa.

In 2008, when Correa ran for his central Orange County Senate seat, he campaigned as “a different kind of Democrat,” even pledging to voters in his campaign mail that he did not support tax increases without a vote of the people.  A multi-billion dollar car tax increase died in the final minutes of last year’s session, in part, because Correa did not vote for it.  Correa is now facing term limits, but has opened a committee with an eye on returning to the Orange County Board of Supervisors.  His opportunity could come as early as early 2015 if incumbent First District Supervisor Janet Nguyen is successful in her bid to succeed Correa in the Senate, in a newly drawn seat that gives an advantage to a GOP candidate.

Correa is fully aware of the fact that during local redistricting, the all-GOP County Board of Supervisors added a chunk of new Republicans to the district, and that he represents only 60 percent of the area now.  When you look back to turnout in 2012 on these new district lines, GOP turnout was four percent higher than Democrat turnout.  And DTS voters in Orange County aren’t typically left-of-center (h/t to Paul Mitchell for the data).

All of this to say that Lou Correa will be careful to consider whether he wants to be the deciding vote on higher taxes and other unattractive bills.

At their peril, next year — an election year — Democrats can push the kind of extreme legislation that requires a super–majority vote.   But it is far less politically convenient to do so.  If Republicans stay unified through August and September of this year, they will have set the table for electoral gains next year.  After suffering losses at the national and state level, Republicans have to deal with very real confidence issues (lack thereof) in both the donor and grassroots communities.  The impressive win by Andy Vidak helps to set the hook.  But how Republicans act the rest of this session is going to matter for next year.

“It’s no secret that the results of the 2012 elections were discouraging for GOP donors,” Wayne Lindholm, president of the influential Orange County Lincoln Club told me.  “A lot of us who are going to be called upon to help finance important legislative campaigns next year are going to be watching, with interest, to see if our GOP caucuses can stick together and stop some bad bills as this legislative session comes to a close, especially with all of these vacancies in Democrat districts.”

These vacancies provide legislative Republicans the opportunity to demonstrate to the voters and taxpayers of California not only that they are “relevant,” but that they are principled, and also that Republicans are vital to restoring California’s economic and job creation environment.  While it is hardly comprehensive, a quick look at the California Chamber of Commerce’s “job killer” bill list is enough to show the stark difference between the parties.

At least until January 2014, and at least in the Assembly, every “job killer” bill that requires a 2/3 vote can and should crash and burn due to Republicans standing tall for pro-growth economic policy and against bigger government.

Will 37 Republican legislators stay unified, determined and focused the rest of the 2013 legislative session?  It is a question that only the next five weeks can answer.