Vidak leads, but outcome uncertain in 16th state Senate race

The Fresno BeeJuly 23, 2013 

The polls are closed and the ballots have been cast, but the winner remains unknown in the closely watched 16th District state Senate showdown between Hanford Republican Andy Vidak and Bakersfield Democrat Leticia Perez.

In unofficial returns on Tuesday, Vidak had around 54% of the total, and Perez 46%.

Nobody, however, was willing to declare victory or concede defeat in the pivotal election, which could help decide whether Democrats retain their two-thirds majority in the state Senate.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," said Vidak, who was watching returns with supporters at his Kings County farm. "We don't know where this is going to end up yet."

Vidak said he was concentrating on personally thanking each of his 300 to 400 volunteers who were at his home.

Perez also was cautious. "As we await the results from this competitive election, I am optimistic that once every ballot is counted, my message of lifting up our communities will carry the day," she said Tuesday night.

The cautious comments likely stem from May's primary election.

In that five-person race, Vidak jumped out to a 10-percentage-point lead over Perez on election night and looked as if he was on his way to winning the seat outright. The following day, Perez conceded.

But in the votes counted after Election Day, returns broke against Vidak, who fell below the 50% threshold needed to avoid Tuesday's runoff.

In this election -- as it was initially in the May primary -- there still are thousands of absentee and provisional ballots to be counted, so it could be days before a winner is known.

As of Tuesday night, turnout had reached 25.3% and almost certainly will surpass that level when the vote count is finished.

Tuesday's election is Round Two for Vidak and Perez. In that May primary to fill the seat vacated by Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio, who resigned in February to take a job with Chevron Corp., Vidak finished first and Perez second.

And, as in the primary election, Vidak was dominating in his home turf of Kings County in initial returns, with more than 75% of the vote. He also did well in adjacent Tulare County, where his father is superintendent of schools.

Perez, who last November was elected to her first term on the Kern County Board of Supervisors, was doing well in her home territory, winning 58.9% of the vote.

She also was winning Fresno County with 54% of the vote to 45.9% for Vidak.

From the moment Rubio resigned, it was clear that both major parties considered the 16th District an important race. Both Democrats and Republicans looked around for the right candidate to back before Perez and Vidak emerged as those choices.

In the primary, Perez raised more than $1.1 million, largely from the state party, Senate Democrats in Sacramento and political action committees. Vidak raised more than $850,000, with a lot of cash from district agriculture, and an assist from Senate Republicans and the Tulare County GOP.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in the 16th District by a sizable margin -- around 51% to 29%. Because of that, Democrats felt confident they could retain the seat.

But Republicans banked on the fact that they do well in special elections, which typically are low turnout, and hoped that Vidak would capture a majority of the vote in the May primary and avoid a runoff.

He fell just short, with 49.8% of the vote. That forced Tuesday's runoff with Perez, who finished second with 43.9% of the vote.

But Vidak's near-win in the primary emboldened Republicans. At the same time, Democrats continued to push Perez. Outside groups redoubled their efforts for one candidate or the other, and suddenly Valley airwaves were inundated with campaign commercials in what is typically a political dead zone.

The candidates themselves have now raised around $4 million, and outside groups have spent well over $1 million in additional money.

This past weekend, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, the Democratic leader, campagined with Perez, and Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff did the same for Vidak. Huff, in fact, made several trips to the district for Vidak.

On Tuesday, United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez and UFW volunteers walked precincts and manned phone banks for Perez. On the other side, state Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Rocklin, campaigned for Vidak.

Reach the reporter at jellis@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6330.

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