A Republican has won a hotly contested state Senate contest in the southern San Joaquin Valley, with his top Democratic rival conceding Wednesday that the race will not go to a runoff.
The special election victory by Hanford cherry farmer Andy Vidak will have no practical effect on the state Senate, where Democrats retain a supermajority, but serves as a psychological boost for the party after massive GOP losses in recent election cycles.
Democratic Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez, of Bakersfield, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, both ceded the 16th Senate District race to Vidak.
Adding another Republican senator increases the hurdle for Democrats to reach the two-thirds majority needed to pass tax hikes and puts the GOP in a stronger position heading into next year's elections, said Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar.
"It's a big shot in the arm," he said. "The district just sent a pretty conservative salvo across the bow of the Democratic majority."
California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte said the victory makes a strong statement about the party's future. He noted in a statement that the party had set up a committee that aired a television ad attacking Perez.
Vidak is "cautiously optimistic" but isn't commenting until more of the remaining outstanding votes are counted, said spokesman Tim Orman.
Democrats won two-thirds majorities in both legislative chambers in November. That was the first time since 1933, when Republicans did it, that one party has held simultaneous supermajorities in the Assembly and Senate.
Vidak, who narrowly lost a congressional bid in 2010, had 52 percent of the vote, enough for an outright victory.
Democrats have a large registration edge in the 16th Senate District — 51 percent to Republicans' 31 percent — but three Democratic candidates and a Peace and Freedom Party candidate split the left-leaning vote. That cleared the way for Vidak to win a simple majority.
Democrats also blamed low voter turnout in their regions coupled with a relatively high turnout in Vidak's stronghold of Kings County.
Steinberg issued a statement congratulating Vidak while suggesting that Perez might make another run for higher office. Vidak will have to defend the seat in 2014.
"Special elections are unique voter-turnout environments, and this is clearly not the last we've heard of the immensely talented Supervisor Perez," Steinberg said.
Next year's election for a full Senate term will be under different district boundaries, drawn by the state's independent redistricting commission in 2011. The new 14th Senate District will encompass all of Kings County and parts of Fresno, Kern and Tulare counties. According to the California TargetBook, current voter registration in that district is 48 percent Democratic, 31 percent Republican and 17 percent no party preference.
"In 18 months, this will be a new race in a new district with a very different turnout model," said Jason Kinney, a political consultant for Senate Democrats.
Elections officials in the four counties said about 7,200 ballots remained to be counted, but Democrats calculated that Perez could not make up enough ground to deny Vidak the victory. He was leading Perez in semi-official results by 5,780 votes, but she was running stronger in Fresno and Kern counties, which had the bulk of the ballots that remained to be counted.
Democrats will retain their Senate supermajority despite losing the seat that had been held by Democrat Michael Rubio, of Bakersfield, who resigned in February to work for Chevron.
The party still holds 28 seats in the 40-member Senate, leaving it with one more than the supermajority needed to raise taxes, pass emergency legislation, override gubernatorial vetoes and put constitutional amendments before voters without Republican support.
The supermajority could be trimmed temporarily to the bare 27-member minimum because Democratic Sen. Curren Price appears poised to leave for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council. Price will leave the Senate in July if his lead from Tuesday's election holds.
In this week's other special legislative election, Lorena Gonzalez won San Diego County's 80th Assembly District seat outright in a race against a fellow Democrat.
She is scheduled to take office on Tuesday, restoring Democrats' two-thirds majority in the Assembly.