When a Republican wins any election in California these days, he’s a bit like the mediocre golfer who gets off a perfect tee shot and wonders how that happened—and whether the feat can ever be repeated. If only he could remember the exact swing, the exact stance, and do it again. It’s never so simple, of course. It may be even tougher to learn from triumphs than from mistakes. And sometimes one gets lucky, and that’s all there is to it. But Andy Vidak’s victory in last week’s state Senate special election in the 16th District was too solid—and too hard-fought on both sides—to be written off as a fluke.
Vidak, a cherry farmer from the Kings County seat of Hanford, won 52 percent of the runoff vote in a district where Democrats enjoy a 19 percent registration edge (50.6 percent to 31.5 percent). Vidak’s win looks even more impressive compared with 2010, the last time voters filled a vacant seat in the district, when Democrat Michael Rubio won with more than 60 percent of the vote. This time around, both parties and their supporting interest groups spent large sums—more than $5 million in all—with Vidak’s Democratic opponent, Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez, getting the larger share. The Democrats needed a victory to shore up their shaky two-thirds supermajority, a margin the state constitution requires to raise taxes without going to a popular vote. The Democrats currently hold 27 out of 40 senate seats. A special election this September to fill a vacancy in the solidly Democratic 26th District should boost their tally to 28, but other seats are vulnerable in 2014 and beyond, weakening the prospects for unfettered tax-and-spend politics.
In short, Vidak has pulled off quite a feat. Could it be duplicated? That depends where you look. Coastal California remains inhospitable to Republican candidates, but the San Joaquin Valley’s partisan loyalties may be the most fluid of any region in the state. Its voters tend to reward politicians who move toward the center. Vidak and Perez both got the message. “I’m not going to be one of those crazy right-wing guys,” Vidak said in an interview with the Bakersfield Californian editorial board. Perez called herself a “Valleycrat” who would look after local interests first and not take orders from the liberal establishment in Sacramento. She supported fracking; Vidak, staking out his own centrist ground, endorsed a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who have long been working in the valley’s farms.
Both in their way were talking about jobs, since oil production and farming are the mainstays of the San Joaquin Valley economy and have been picking up lately. The valley’s dismal unemployment rate has fallen somewhat, but joblessness here remains much worse than in California as a whole—12.8 percent in Kings County in June, for instance, compared with 8.8 percent statewide. Suffering most are the valley’s Latinos, who make up more than 60 percent of the 16th District’s population. It’s not yet clear how Vidak performed among them, but he would have had a difficult time winning without a solid portion of their votes.
Vidak’s soft line on immigration surely helped his cause, but so did his hard line on water. He insisted on “a reliable and affordable supply of water to our economic engine—agriculture” as the first order of business in creating jobs. Perez said she was pro-water, too, but she had a problem with her own party. San Joaquin Valley farmers and workers know full well who is working to limit their water deliveries, and it isn’t Republicans. They’re also not impressed with the Democrats’ pet idea for juicing the valley economy: throwing billions at high-speed rail and destroying thousands of acres of prime farmland in the process. While Perez backed the rail project, Vidak argued that the money would be better spent on water-delivery systems, schools, and health clinics.
Last week’s election may have been the first of many big-budget battles in the state’s heartland. Republicans cannot ignore the contestable seats in the region, especially with the Democrats’ narrow supermajority. GOP candidates not scared off by lopsided party-registration numbers can win by discussing policies that make sense to all voters, Latino and otherwise. If nothing else, Vidak will have a chance to prove that his victory was no fluke next year, when Kings County and vicinity will be in a new district (the 14th) with a somewhat higher proportion of Latinos. If he wins a second time, he might begin to teach fellow Republicans how to become an effective statewide party again.