State Senate 16th District: Perez concedes defeat to Vidak

The Fresno BeeJuly 24, 2013 

Bakersfield Democrat Leticia Perez conceded defeat Wednesday to Hanford Republican Andy Vidak in the hotly contested 16th District state Senate race.

"This campaign is over," Perez said in a written statement. "Andy has earned the right to represent us in Sacramento and I look forward to him delivering on his promises to create jobs, improve our economy and deliver fresh, reliable water to our farms and families."

Perez's concession -- which was made mid-afternoon -- came after initial vote tallies Tuesday evening gave Vidak a significant lead and the relatively small number of ballots still to be counted virtually ensured his victory.

By Wednesday, Vidak's lead remained at about eight percentage points with more than 72,000 votes cast.

In his own written statement, which came a little more than an hour after Perez's, Vidak thanked his family, campaign staff and volunteers.

He also said "thank you to the voters of the 16th District. You have shown that common sense doesn't know party lines. My campaign is about representing this district in Sacramento and I look forward to doing the job the voters have elected me to do."

When the vote-count was completed late Tuesday, Vidak was up by more than 5,800 votes. Perez would have had to win more than 80% of the outstanding ballots to overtake him. It was all but impossible, supporters of both candidates said.

If this turn of events sounds familiar, it is.

In the May primary, Vidak opened up a sizable lead on election night and seemed poised to finish above the 50% vote threshold needed to avoid a runoff.

Then, as now, Perez conceded. Republicans started calling Vidak "senator-elect," and Vidak himself began settling into that role. Then came the late ballot counts and a stunning turnaround that pushed Vidak below 50%, forcing Tuesday's runoff election.

For that reason, Vidak was almost silent for a good chunk of Wednesday. He not only was stung in May, but also in his 2010 congressional challenge of Fresno Democrat Jim Costa, where his early lead ended up being a narrow loss.

Republicans on Wednesday morning, though, could barely conceal their glee at Vidak's lead, feeling confident that they had succeeded in stealing the seat from the Democrats. The seat came open when Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio resigned in February. Before Rubio held the seat, it was occupied by Democrats Dean Florez and Costa.

The question for both parties is how to proceed from this point.

It's unclear when Vidak will be sworn in, but he will almost immediately have to start gearing up for a re-election run. He will have to run for re-election not in the 16th District, where he was elected, but in the newly created 14th District.

It is largely -- but not totally -- the same as the current district, and slightly more favorable to Republicans, though still with a strong Democratic Party registration edge.

Vidak didn't address that future campaign. Perez said she hasn't given another run any thought, but her supporters already say they want a rematch.

"We will encourage her, as a Democratic Party, to run again," said Matt Rogers, chairman of the Fresno County Young Democrats.

Looking back at the seat's history, Rogers said, the 16th District has almost always been Democratic. The exception, he said, was a special election victory by Phil Wyman over Costa, which came in 1993.

The next year, Rogers pointed out, Costa ran again and defeated Wyman.

But Tony Quinn, a longtime political analyst and former Republican legislative aide, said the comparison isn't fair.

The 16th District that Wyman won included none of Fresno County. It instead included Kings, Kern, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.

When Wyman and Costa met for the 1994 rematch -- which Costa won -- it was in the 16th District that looks much like the one Vidak just won.

Instead, Quinn thinks Vidak's win could not only propel him to a reelection victory next year, it could also help state Sen. Anthony Cannella, a Ceres Republican. Cannella's district will move south and take in parts of Fresno County.

"Unless (the Republicans) screw things up, I think both Cannella and Vidak should be able to hold on," Quinn said. "They are non-partisan, hard-working legislators that (Valley) people like."

When the counting ended Tuesday night, Vidak had amassed a lead of 5,833 votes. Elections officials in the four counties that make up the 16th District -- Kings, Kern, Tulare and Fresno -- estimate they have close to 9,500 ballots left to count.

Votes counted through late Tuesday showed that Vidak demolished Perez in Kings County, his home territory, winning more than 75% of the vote. Perez didn't win nearly enough votes to offset that margin in Kern, where she is a first-term county supervisor, and Fresno County, the district's other Democratic Party stronghold.

Vidak said in his statement that he would "work to bring jobs to the Valley, to bring reliable and affordable clean water to our farms and communities and to (regain) local control of our schools.

"It was a spirited campaign and I look forward to working with Supervisor Perez along with every other elected official in the district," his statement continued. "We all have to set aside our differences and work together to make this Valley a better and safer place to live. Now it's time to roll up our sleeves and get to work."

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

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