For voters in the central San Joaquin Valley, 2014 is looking like a pivotal election year.
Several high-profile local races are shaping up as challengers step forward and longtime elected officials step down. In addition, potentially competitive state and federal contests could mean the region gets plenty of outside attention — and campaign cash.
The question is, will voters be paying attention?
"There are a lot of exciting local races, but you're still going to have low turnout," said Jeff Cummins, a Fresno State political science professor.
In most elections, the top of the ticket drives people to the polls, and this year, he said, "the gubernatorial race will be a sleeper" as Gov. Jerry Brown is widely expected to cruise to an easy re-election.
If local voters stay home because the governor's race isn't competitive, both Republicans and Democrats agree that would be a mistake because the region is brimming with hot contests.
The biggest single reason is that two Fresno County supervisors — Phil Larson in District 1 and Judy Case in District 4 — are both retiring. With only five members, new supervisors in two districts could change the county's political direction for years, decades or, as former Assembly Member Sarah Reyes said, "the foreseeable future."
"Those races are the single most important races on the ballot," said Reyes, a Fresno Democrat. "They could change the dynamic at the county — good or bad."
Sanger businessman Tal Cloud, who is political director of the Lincoln Club of Fresno County, said both Larson and Case have been strong voices for the county's conservative, rural and agriculture-based backbones.
If they are replaced by union-backed candidates, or ones who are more focused on urban issues, he said, it could mean trouble for farming in particular, and a change in the county's approach to governing.
"The average voter doesn't understand that the supervisors control a lot of things that affect everybody — from public safety to water," Cloud said. "And no one is really paying attention, and both (races) could be over in June."
There's certainly no shortage of hopefuls for the two seats, with eight people — four in each district — so far expressing interest or definitely saying they will run.
The two races will only involve voters in parts of Fresno County.
Larson's District 1 covers the northern half of western Fresno County, including urban west Fresno and smaller towns such as Mendota, Kerman and Firebaugh. Case's District 4 covers the southern part of Fresno County, including the towns of Sanger, Coalinga, Selma, Kingsburg, Huron, Orange Cove and Reedley, among others.
But those aren't the only contests that are shaping up in the Valley. Here's a look at some of the other hot-button races:
Fresno County DA
This is an office that is normally competitive only when a sitting district attorney retires. True to form, the last time it was a race was in 2002, when current District Attorney Elizabeth Egan was elected.
She was unopposed in 2006 and 2010.
But this year, former Deputy District Attorney Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp — the daughter-in-law of prominent Fresno businessman Bob Smittcamp — is challenging Egan.
Because both candidates are Republicans, Cloud is pushing for the Lincoln Club of Fresno County to sponsor a debate between the two women.
Democrats continue to feel they can take out first-term Hanford Republican David Valadao in the 21st District, even though he's posted Assembly and congressional wins in the past two elections.
The reason: voter registration numbers that favor Democrats, and a large number of Hispanic voters.
Two Democrats are vying to challenge Valadao: Fresno resident John Hernandez and Sanger resident Amanda Renteria. Only two will advance from the June primary to the November general election.
Hernandez lost to Valadao in 2012. Renteria — a former U.S. Senate chief-of-staff — already looks on track to winning major support from the Democratic Party.
Two Republican state senators will face re-election battles in districts where Democrats have sizable registration advantages.
Those candidates are Anthony Cannella of Ceres, who represents a Senate district that will now include the western third of Fresno County, and Hanford cherry farmer Andy Vidak, who was elected last year in a special election to fill the seat of Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio, who resigned.
Democrats say they'll contest both seats.
"No other region, save for the Inland Empire in Southern California, presents as many overall opportunities for Democrats," said California Democratic Party spokesman Tenoch Flores. "We're committed to pressing our advantage and in this state that means engaging Republicans in regions once considered solid GOP strongholds."
Vidak may be the more vulnerable of the two, said Tony Quinn, a longtime political analyst and former Republican legislative aide. That's because he won his seat last year in a special election, which are typically low turnout and traditionally favor Republicans.
Fresno Unified School District Trustee Luis Chavez is one Democrat who has said he will challenge Vidak. And on Friday, Kings County Supervisor Richard Valle, also a Democrat, said he was entering the race.
As with the Valadao congressional race, the state's top-two primary will eliminate all but two candidates in June, setting up the general election in November.
Quinn said the Vidak and Cannella races are important because they could help determine whether Democrats maintain a two-thirds majority in the state Senate. Right now, Democrats are two above the threshold, but are expected to lose one seat this year.
Not on the radar — yet
Other state and federal races are either already decided — or are largely question marks.
Republicans always say they're going to take out Rep. Jim Costa, a Fresno Democrat. It was close in 2010, when Vidak almost did it, but other than that the GOP has never delivered on its threat.
Quinn said Republicans will likely try to pin President Barack Obama in general, and the botched Affordable Care Act rollout in particular, to Costa. Quinn said he wouldn't predict whether a health-care-based attack on Costa is something that will stick.
And Cloud said Republicans should target Bakersfield Democrat Rudy Salas' Assembly seat. The district has always been competitive, with both Republicans and Democrats holding the territory over the past several years.
Looking at voter-turnout prediction models, Cloud said the seat is "an easy pickup if the Republicans had leadership in Sacramento that wanted to go for that seat."
"It's much too early to say categorically where the hot races will be," said Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican strategist and author of the California Target Book, which tracks the state's elections. "But the Central Valley's going to be very competitive. It normally is."
Three Fresno City Council members — Sal Quintero, Oliver Baines and Clint Olivier — face re-election. Political observers are wondering whether some city unions will find a credible challenger to Olivier, who has opposed some labor issues after telling unions he was supportive.
Still, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1027 — Fresno's bus drivers — and the city's firefighters' union came to Olivier's campaign kickoff to show their support.
Also, Fresno City Council Member Blong Xiong is seeking Larson's supervisor's seat. So far, six people have expressed interest in Xiong's seat.
At the county level, one big question is Fresno County Assessor-Recorder Paul Dictos' re-election. Dictos made some enemies — especially in the agricultural community — when his office raised property taxes for thousands of agricultural landowners.
Is Sanger Republican Michael Goossen the person those disgruntled county residents will look to in the hope of defeating Dictos? Will another candidate emerge?
That's not the end of the June ballot. It's just its most intriguing part, so far.
Statewide constitutional offices such as secretary of state, treasurer and attorney general will be up for grabs, as will 21 Fresno County Superior Court judges and Assembly seats widely considered safe, such as those held by Fresno Democrat Henry T. Perea and Fresno Republican Jim Patterson.
Tulare's Connie Conway, the Republican Assembly leader, is termed out, but her district is considered to be safe Republican. She's endorsed Woodlake Mayor Rudy Mendoza as her replacement.
Other races are coming, too, though at this point their competitiveness remains very much in question. For example, it's unknown whether three Fresno County incumbents — Sheriff Margaret Mims, Clerk Brandi Orth and Auditor-Controller/Treasurer-Tax Collector Vicki Crow — will face challenges.
Back to the ballot
All of the candidates will be watching to see what kind of buzz candidates at the top generate.
For instance, Republican analysts Quinn and Hoffenblum say that gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly — a Southern California Republican Assembly member — could prove to be disastrous for candidates like Vidak and Cannella if he is the GOP's candidate against Brown in November.
Donnelly, an outspoken critic of illegal immigration, could drive up Hispanic turnout and send those voters toward the Democratic Party candidate.
"Donnelly would hurt people like Vidak and Cannella for sure," Quinn said.
Hoffenblum said the main concern for all Valley Republicans should be if the GOP's gubernatorial candidate "will be neutral or will do them harm."
The ramifications could go well beyond Vidak and Cannella, local political watchers say. That's because those state Senate districts overlap with Case's and Larson's Fresno County supervisorial districts.
For now, there's certainly still jockeying left before voters' mailboxes start filling up — probably sometime in April, ahead of the May 5 start of absentee balloting.
Dec. 27: Candidates began gathering signatures for in-lieu petitions to avoid paying filing fees. Judicial candidates have until Feb. 5; everyone else has until Feb. 20.
Feb. 10: Candidate filing begins; runs through March 7 (extended to March 12 for races where the incumbent isn't running for re-election)
May 5: First day to vote by mail (also the day most sample ballots are mailed)
May 19: Last day to register to vote
May 27: Last day to request a vote-by-mail ballot by mail
June 3: Primary Election Day
Nov. 4: General Election Day
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
Madera County: 200 W. Fourth St., Madera; details: fblinks.com/madvote or (559) 675-7720
Merced County: 2222 M St., Merced; details: fblinks.com/mervote or (209) 385-7541
Mariposa County: 4982 10th St., Mariposa; details: fblinks.com/marvote or (209) 966-2007
A look at some of the people who have said they're candidates in key races in the central San Joaquin Valley:
Fresno County Supervisor District 1: San Joaquin Mayor Amarpreet "Ruby" Dhaliwal, Kerman dairyman Brian Pacheco, Fresno City Council Member Blong Xiong, Kerman Mayor Gary Yep
Fresno County Supervisor District 4: Caruthers businessman and well-known Sikh community leader Harry Gill, Riverdale farmer Ernest "Buddy" Mendes, Fowler Mayor Pro Tem Daniel Parra, former Reedley City Council Member Steve Rapada
21st Congressional District: incumbent David Valadao, R-Hanford; John Hernandez, D-Fresno; Amanda Renteria, D-Sanger
State Senate District 14: State Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford; Fresno Unified Trustee Luis Chavez, D-Fresno; Kings County Supervisor Richard Valle, D-Corcoran
Fresno City Council District 1: Lawrence Cano, Mark Castro, Cary Catalano, Rama Kant Dawar, Rebecca Rangel, Esmeralda Soria
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, firstname.lastname@example.org or @johnellis24 on Twitter.