Jim Costa had to wait more than a year for the rematch that ignited his political career. Letitia Perez will only have to wait about two months.
Now a veteran Democratic moderate congressman from the Fresno-Madera area, Costa lost to Hanford Republican Phil Wyman in a special election in the 16th Senate district in 1993, but came back a year later to win the seat and hold it until he was termed out in 2002.
Perez lost the same seat to a Republican in a May special election – or so it seemed until all votes were finally counted. Perez conceded after the May vote, saying in a written statement that “I want to congratulate (Republican) Andy Vidak on winning this hard-fought race.”
The Wall Street Journal hailed Vidak’s “victory” as a “farmers’ rebellion.” The state Republican Party looked on Vidak’s “win” as a sign it could succeed even in districts where Democrats have large registration advantages (17 percent in this case).
But not so fast. Turns out it was no win for Vidak at all. Even though his share of the vote hovered above 51 percent all through Election Night and into the next day, when provisional ballots and late absentee votes were counted, he fell to 49.8 percent, while Perez’ total eventually crept near 44 percent, and the two headed for a July runoff.
The questions for Perez, a rookie Kern County supervisor: Can she win the 5.6 percent of votes that went to the other Democrats in the race, both Latino like her?
Can she get the 471 votes cast for a Peace and Freedom Party candidate?
For sure, Democrats in May didn’t vote in the numbers expected in the populous Kern and Fresno county portions of the district. Meanwhile, Vidak, a Kings County cherry farmer who lost a previous race for congress to Costa, dominated in Kings and Tulare counties, while Perez didn’t win her key areas by the margins expected.
As far as party control of the state Senate right now, this race means little.
Democrats already hold 28 of the 40 seats there, while Republicans have only 11. That gives Democrats a veto-proof two-thirds majority, no matter who wins in the 16th, even though they will lose one seat temporarily when Curren Price takes his newly won seat on the Los Angeles City Council.
But if Perez wins, she could hold the seat for as long as 13 years, since legislators can now serve up to 12 years worth of regular terms in the same house before having to leave. The 18 months remaining in the current term would not keep her from serving three more full terms if she can win enough elections.
Republicans initially saw this contest as a very hopeful sign. Yes, they generally do better in special elections than in general elections when votes are also cast for president, governor and the U.S. Senate. Yes, this district (or parts of it, since it was reconfigured in 2012) has been represented by Republicans in recent years.
But the “farmers’ rebellion” (presumably against environmental rules mostly promulgated by Democrats) wasn’t all the Wall Street Journal thought it was, despite the state GOP investing more than $200,000 in the race. The runoff might determine whether there really is a farmers’ rebellion of any significance.
Now the main question is whether Perez can draw Democratic voters who stayed home in May. She won’t have to produce very many of them. And if she can win in an area whose elected offices often are decided by small margins, it will be a sign that the Democratic registration advantages so common all over California mean a lot.
There’s also the question of whether Democrats can turn out voters better in July in Republican-leaning Kings and Tulare counties, which are dominated by farm interests to a greater extent than Kern and Fresno counties, both of which contain large cities – Bakersfield and Fresno.
Democrats pointed at heavily Latino towns like Lindsay, Woodlake and Dinuba as places where they can get more votes next month.
It’s a quick turnaround, amounting to a rematch between Vidak and Perez, who were the clear frontrunners from the day the special election was scheduled.
This runoff will also be more of a pure harbinger than the first go-’round, if only because the less popular candidates are gone.
The bottom line: If a moderate Republican like Vidak can’t win in an agricultural district like the 16th, the GOP will once again have to wonder about its prospects anywhere outside its base areas of Orange and northern San Diego counties.