Leticia Perez, Andy Vidak vie for Valley's 16th state Senate seat

The Fresno BeeJune 20, 2013 

For three days after the May 23 special election to fill a vacant Valley-based state Senate seat, giddy Republicans were calling Hanford cherry farmer Andy Vidak "senator-elect."

Then came news that an Election Day ballot surge by his rival, Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez, had forced a runoff, and her Democratic Party supporters dubbed her the "comeback kid."

Now, Perez and Vidak — the top two finishers in the five-person primary — will square off in a one-on-one midsummer showdown for the 16th District state Senate seat, which became vacant when Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio resigned in February to take a job with Chevron Corp.

The runoff election is July 23, during summer's dog days, but voters can begin casting mail ballots Monday, a fact not lost on either of the campaigns.

With that in mind, 16th District voters can likely expect more of the same campaigning from Vidak and Perez that took place ahead of last month's special election primary.

He'll push his populist message that the Valley's westside is an afterthought in Democrat-dominated Sacramento and remains a part of the state that has been shorted on clean drinking water, health care and education.

She'll continue to call for a higher minimum wage and the need to teach English to children in the district, which has a majority Hispanic population.

There will almost certainly be another barrage of television commercials crowding the airwaves and mailers landing in mailboxes.

"I suspect that both of them have come up with a strategy to work with what went best for them last time," said Tony Quinn, a longtime political analyst and former Republican legislative aide.

The hunt for votes

For all that, however, the election likely will boil down to two simple strategies, experts said.

One is Vidak and Perez each making sure voters who cast ballots for them in the May primary also do so in the July election. The other is fighting over the 6.3% of voters who cast ballots for the remaining three candidates in May — Democrats Paulina Miranda of Fresno and Francisco "Frank" Ramirez of Riverdale and Peace and Freedom Party member Mohammad Arif of Bakersfield.

The primary election initially went Vidak's way. He jumped to an early lead on election night and at one point had almost 52% of the vote to Perez's 41.7%. Perez conceded, thinking Vidak's vote count would remain above 50% of the total and he would win the election outright.

But late absentee and provisional ballots went strongly for Perez — and few came in for Vidak.

He finished with 49.8% of the vote to Perez's 43.9%.

There already are signals that the July election will be hotly contested.

For instance, on June 14 the California Republican Party contributed $100,000 to Vidak.

Perez has yet to receive such a contribution from the state Democratic Party, but it is likely coming. The state party contributed more than $700,000 to her campaign ahead of the May 23 primary.

Chevron Corp. on June 3 contributed $150,000 to Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy. In April, Chevron contributed $100,000 to the same organization, which in turn spent $230,000 in support of Perez.

A Chevron spokesman said both contributions were for the primary election, and the energy giant has no plans to give money for the runoff.

Closing the deal

Vidak likes his chances because he won the May primary and fell just a few hundred votes short of 50%.

The Republican Party, it appears, agrees.

"The initial commitment was, 'Let's see if we can win it in the primary,' " Quinn said. "They clearly tried, and they just fell short. It seems to me that they were so close that they can't walk away now."

Democrats still think they can win because the district has a huge Democratic Party registration advantage and is majority Hispanic. Democrats have 50.7% of the registered voters; Republican registration is just 28.6%.

"We believe this is a Democratic district and the large registration gap will ensure Leticia wins the runoff," said Trent Hager, Perez's campaign manager. "In fact, I do not know of a single legislative district in California where the GOP holds a seat where their registration is under 29%."

Perez raised $1.24 million for the primary, and had only $61,000 left in her account — and $10,000 in unpaid bills — as of June 8. She has, however, raised around $76,000 since then.

In the same period, Vidak raised a little more than $1 million and had around $82,500 in his campaign coffers — and more than $27,000 in debt — as of June 8. Since then, he's raised around $163,000, the biggest being the $100,000 state Republican Party contribution.

Knocking on doors

Heading toward July, Perez said she plans to "spend more time in direct contact with voters, more time calling folks in the evening, more time knocking on doors. I'll have to double and triple that effort from the first go-round."

Perez said it was only as Election Day approached that she finally was able to counter Vidak's name-identification advantage. She said 81% of Fresno County provisional ballots and 83% of Kern County's provisionals — all cast on Election Day — went her way.

"We didn't anticipate that," she said.

Because of that, Perez thinks the runoff will favor her, though she says she's taking nothing for granted. And, she is not backing away from her strong support for the state's planned high-speed rail project, which will start construction — possibly as soon as this year — in the Valley.

But Vidak also likes his chances of winning the election, and he's counting on votes from conservative Democrats to help get him over the top.

When he mounted a strong congressional challenge in 2010 to Fresno Democrat Jim Costa, Vidak said he won a huge amount of Democratic Party crossover votes in his home turf of Kings County.

"We're doing the same thing we have been doing," Vidak said. "We're talking to more voters. We're pounding on doors. We've just got a common-sense message. There's no party lines on common sense."

Part of his plank is strong opposition to the high-speed rail project.

Quinn, the political analyst, said Republicans have to increase the vote-by-mail turnout to win the race.

But Hager said Vidak "basically ran as the 'incumbent' in round one and ended up under 50%." The Perez campaign says internal polling shows her up on Vidak, "and we believe the longer we have to introduce Leticia to this electorate, the better she will do. She simply fits the demographics of this Latino, Democratic-majority district."

The candidates

Leticia Perez

Age: 36

City of residence: Bakersfield

Occupation: Kern County supervisor

Education: Bachelor's degree in law and society, University of California at Santa Barbara; law degree, Valparaiso University

Family: Married, 1 child

Party preference: Democrat

Online: leticiaperez.org, Facebook page, @Team_Leticia on Twitter.

Andy Vidak

Age: 47

City of residence: Hanford

Occupation: Farmer/small business owner

Education: Bachelor's in animal business, Texas Tech University

Family: Single

Party preference: Republican

Online: vidakforsenate.com, Facebook page.

Key dates

Election day: July 23

Mail balloting begins: June 24

Last day to register to vote: July 8

Election offices

Fresno County

2221 Kern St., Fresno

Details: fblinks.com/fcvote or (559) 600-VOTE (8683)

Tulare County

5951 S. Mooney Blvd., Visalia

Details: fblinks.com/tcvote or (559) 624-7300

Kings County

1400 W. Lacey Blvd., Hanford

Details: fblinks.com/kcvote or (559) 582-3211, ext. 4401

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, jellis@fresnobee.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.Special election

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