Few among California's political cognoscenti expected the special election in the Valley's 16th Senate District to become an expensive, heated, nip-and-tuck showdown between Democrat Leticia Perez and Republican Andy Vidak.
But that's exactly what has happened since Vidak almost won the strongly Democratic district in the primary. Now the race is the most-watched in California, and could decide whether the Democrats keep their supermajority in the Senate.
Election Day is Tuesday, and on this final weekend of campaigning, both Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, the Democratic leader, and Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff are campaigning in the district.
They will be joined by legions of volunteers coming to the district that runs from Fresno to Bakersfield.
Between June 9 and July 6, both campaigns spent close to $400,000 on television ads alone. Both are also up on radio. They are dropping ads into district mailboxes. Supporters are manning phone banks. And they are doing it in both English and Spanish.
Outside groups are doing much of the same, running their own parallel campaigns. These groups have spent in excess of $1 million in support of — or in opposition to — Vidak or Perez.
The California Association of Realtors, in particular, has turned heads with an independent campaign supporting Vidak that — as of Friday — had spent more than $830,000.
All total, around $4.5 million will be spent on the race, which experts say is more like a November general election, not a special election in the doldrums of a hot Valley summer.
Most experts never expected a runoff between Vidak and Perez in the battle to replace Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio, who unexpectedly resigned in February to take a job with Chevron Corp.
With the Democratic voter advantage, they figured Perez would have not only won the five-person, May 23 primary election, but would have collected more than 50% of the vote to earn an outright victory.
Instead, Perez finished second to Vidak, who fell just 114 votes short of the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff. The runoff features the top two vote-getters in the race.
"Leticia should have put this away a month ago, and when she didn't it showed others there is blood in the water," said David Schecter, a Fresno State political science professor. "Now she has to fight for her life in what should be a cakewalk."
Vidak's performance emboldened Republican supporters of the Hanford cherry farmer. Had Vidak forced a runoff, but only collected 45% or so of the vote — and finished second to Perez — it would have been easy for the GOP to cut off funds to him, experts said.
And Democrats also had no choice but to go all in for Perez because the race is viewed as critical for the party to keep its two-thirds supermajority in the state Senate, which allows them to raise taxes and confirm nominees without Republican input.
If Vidak wins Tuesday, Democrats would still hold a supermajority, but just one over the required 27 seats. Republicans are expected to win a seat or two in next year's general election.
The other reason is the Democrats consider the district to be theirs. It is majority Hispanic, and Democrats have 50.7% of the registered voters; Republican registration is just 28.6%.
Because of this, Schecter and others say Democrats squandered a golden opportunity to quickly dispatch Vidak and keep the seat in their fold.
Tony Quinn, a longtime political analyst and former Republican legislative aide, said Perez is part of the problem. She is a political neophyte who only last November won her first elected office — a seat on the Kern County Board of Supervisors.
Quinn said Assembly Member Henry T. Perea, a Fresno Democrat, would have been a better candidate, or even his Democratic colleague from Bakersfield, Rudy Salas.
The 16th District covers all of Kings County and parts of Tulare, Kern and Fresno counties. Perea is from Fresno, which contains a huge chunk of district voters, and Salas — though newly elected like Perez — represents a district that overlaps with much of the 16th Senate District.
Perez, by comparison, represents a supervisorial district that only partly covers the 16th District. She was almost completely unheard of in Fresno, which is why she's had to spend so much money getting known here.
Finally, both Vidak and campaign experts say a good number of Democrats voted for Vidak. Quinn and others say Perez's campaign has been largely geared toward Hispanics and suspect the defectors were Anglo Democrats.
But Johnny Amaral, a political activist who is also chief of staff for Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare, says there's more to it than that.
Amaral says several Republicans have performed well of late on the Valley's west side. Among them is Vidak himself, who in 2010 nearly upset incumbent Democrat Jim Costa of Fresno in a congressional bid.
He also cites Hanford Republican David Valadao, who won the Assembly seat now held by Salas before moving up to Congress with a successful run for the 21st District, which was formed after the redistricting for the 2010 census.
It shows, Amaral said, that the current Democratic Party message isn't resonating with the Valley's west side.
"A 23-point registration edge?" Amaral asked rhetorically. "In any other part of the country, we'd probably have no business competing in a district like that. To me, there's more to this than just the fact that the Democrat machine in Sacramento picked a weak candidate.
"After years of punitive and job-killing policies on water and energy development from Sacramento Democrats, it's bound to have an impact on people and their voting habits."
Whatever the case, both sides say they are confident heading into Tuesday's election. Voters have been casting ballots by mail for nearly a month.
"We've had momentum, I think, ever since the end of the primary," Vidak said. "We have a common-sense message, and I think there are no party lines on common sense."
Perez is also working to get her message out — and get voters to the polls.
"We are really focused on keeping a positive message," she said. "People are tired of the negativity."
Indeed, as Tuesday's showdown has approached, the rhetoric has heated up as well. Supporters of both sides have filed complaints with the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state's political watchdog.
Perez singled out a radio ad by the Lincoln Club of Fresno County, which featured the sound of flatulence.
The ads featuring the gas sound are no longer running, said Lincoln Club member Tal Cloud, who is the person behind the effort. They've been replaced by a similar ad without the sound.
But Cloud said the point of the ads remains the same: Rubio, a Democrat, resigned from the Senate to work for Chevron. His move cost money to hold a special election. Then Chevron gave money to an independent group that supported Perez.
It is, he said, "bad gas."
The 16th District saga has taken up a good portion of the year.
Rubio resigned in mid-February. Various candidates, including Perea, looked at the seat. Republicans courted former Fresno Mayor Alan Autry, who eventually said no. Sacramento's Democratic leadership pushed Shafter Council Member Fran Florez — mother of Dean Florez, who used to hold the seat — from the race.
It eventually became a five-person contest in the May 23 primary: Joining Perez and Vidak were 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%, and the runoff was on.
Ramirez eventually endorsed Vidak and has worked hard for his campaign.
Tuesday's election might not be the final word in the district, said Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican strategist and author of the California Target Book, which tracks the state's elections.
No matter what, the winner will face re-election next year. Tuesday's race is in the 16th state Senate District. Next year's election will be in the newly created 14th District, which is similar, but not totally the same, as the 16th.
If Vidak wins, Hoffenblum said, "he'll be a top target" next year. Democrats, he said, will make a strong push to recapture the seat.
But if Perez wins, he said, she likely will serve until she is forced from the seat, not by Republicans, but by term limits — which is close to 14 years in office.
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, email@example.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.
State Senate District 16: Runoff between Leticia Perez, D-Bakersfield, and Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, to replace Michael Rubio, who resigned the seat in February. Perez and Vidak were the top vote-getters in a five-person field in May.
Election Day: Tuesday. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mail-in balloting started June 24.
Candidates on Valley economy: Go to fblinks.com/sd16 to read Perez's and Vidak's position papers
2221 Kern St., Fresno
Details: fblinks.com/fcvote or (559) 600-VOTE (8683)
5951 S. Mooney Blvd., Visalia
Details: fblinks.com/tcvote or (559) 624-7300.
1400 W. Lacey Blvd., Hanford
Details: fblinks.com/kcvote or (559) 582-3211, ext. 4401.
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
Facebook: Leticia Perez for Senate
City of residence: Hanford
Occupation: Farmer/small business owner
Education: Bachelor's in animal business, Texas Tech University
Party preference: Republican
Facebook: Andy Vidak