May 24, 2014

Top-two June primary still a serious election for two-candidate race

State election rules say the top two finishers in next month's primary will move on to November, but in three Valley state Senate contests -- and several other races around California -- only two candidates are running.

That means those contests will essentially be a dry-run for November, with both candidates moving on regardless of the June vote tally.

Don't think, however, that candidates are blowing the election off and looking ahead to the November general election. If they do, it's at their own peril, experts said.

A candidate who gets pounded in a dry-run primary will still be in the race, but campaign contributors might turn away, thinking the person now has no chance of winning in November. Or a perception might develop among the candidate's political party, volunteers or, worst of all, voters, that the race can't be won.

"How many times have I said that in politics, it's all about perception, because in politics, perception is reality," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a veteran political analyst at the University of Southern California.

Across the state, more than 50 congressional, state Senate and Assembly races are pitting two candidates against each other on June 3.

Locally, the two-person races are incumbent Republican Tom Berryhill vs. Fresno Democrat Paulina Miranda in the 8th District, incumbent Ceres Republican Anthony Cannella vs. Salinas Democrat Shawn Bagley in the 12th District, and incumbent Hanford Republican Andy Vidak vs. Fresno Democrat Luis Chavez in the 14th District.

So far, the Vidak-Chavez race looks to be the most competitive. Vidak won the seat last year in a special election, and based on registration numbers and a history of holding the seat, Democrats think they can win it back.

The seat opened up when Michael Rubio, a Bakersfield Democrat, resigned to take a job with Chevron Corp. Before Rubio, Democrats Dean Florez of Shafter and Jim Costa of Fresno held the seat.

Now, Chavez doesn't want to stumble out of the gate.

This year, he's raised almost $380,000 and spent just about every cent of it. He's produced two television commercials, has had supporters hand-deliver print materials to prospective voters and has bought space on slate mailers.

The hope is to increase Chavez's name identification among voters in the district. Chavez is a Fresno Unified trustee, but the district stretches all the way into Kern County and includes all of Kings County, areas where he isn't known.

"We don't expect to finish first," said Chavez's political consultant, Mark Scozzari. "We do expect to be able to finish within a respectable striking distance for the general election. That's our goal."

Scozzari isn't saying what a respectable striking distance is, but Jeffe thinks "he's got to be real close ... anywhere more than 3% behind, and he starts looking a little iffy in any argument (of viability) he might make."

Vidak, with the power of incumbency, is taking a different view on the June primary. His name recognition has skyrocketed since he narrowly lost a 2010 congressional battle with Fresno Democrat Jim Costa.

Last year, he built on that with the special election contest -- which included both a May primary and a July general election -- against Bakersfield Democrat Leticia Perez.

After those two races, and with more than nine months under his belt as a state senator, Vidak said the primary will be a good chance to know where he stands with the electorate.

"It's a heck of a poll," he said.

Cannella is taking a similar view.

"Although I will definitely move on from the primary, I look at it as a bellwether to see how things are going," he said.

Because of redistricting, this will be Cannella's first time running under the new district lines. When he first ran four years ago, his Merced County-centered district didn't include any of Fresno County. This time, it includes the western third of the county.

So Cannella is taking the vote seriously, and says it is a good chance to get a "grade" from voters.

For all the candidates, Jeffe said it is "triply important (they) not get embarrassed."

Those that do will likely be exposed as candidates who are not viable. On the flip side, a viable candidate who slips up by looking past June to November probably won't recover.

"We want to have a decent showing and make sure we do well," Chavez said. "We can build on that for the fall and have a good solid base of support."

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