LOS ANGELES — Democrats are spending and campaigning heavily to try to bolster their majorities in both houses of the California Legislature.
Edging out Republicans ahead of November is key to their strategy as voters narrow the field on Tuesday.
All 80 Assembly seats and half of the 40 Senate seats are on the primary ballot, but interest is focused most intensely on a handful of races that could tip the partisan or ideological makeup of the Legislature. The outcome will ultimately 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.
The races won’t be settled until November, but Tuesday’s primary will pare hundreds of office-seekers down to two per district and show who has momentum heading into the general election. Under California’s top-two primary, the two leading candidates advance, even if they’re from the same party.
“Primary races are easy pickings because, in many cases, there are no television ads, and very little direct mail or any of the traditional kind of advertising that we see in the general election,” said Kimberly Nalder, director of the Project for an Informed Electorate at California State University, Sacramento.
Democrats go into the election with 52 of 80 Assembly seats and 26 of 40 seats in the Senate.
In some places, particularly the swing districts of Orange County and the Inland Empire, they’ll battle Republicans in a quest to run up the score. Picking up two Assembly seats and one in the Senate would give Democrats a two-thirds supermajority, sufficient to raise taxes without any Republican votes.
After a respectable showing by the GOP in 2014, Republicans are now on the defensive. 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 and Eric Linder of Corona.
All are districts that supported Barack Obama in the 2008 and 2012 general elections.
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, faces a challenge from the left by attorney Eloise Gomez-Reyes. Democratic Sen. Jim Beall of San Jose faces a challenge from Democratic Assemblywoman Nora Campos.
Among Republicans, open seats in conservative areas have drawn strong in 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.