November's statewide election created two vacancies in the California Legislature, prompting a scramble by 18 candidates running in special primary elections Tuesday.
They're aiming to fill the Senate seats vacated by Democrat Ricardo Lara, who was elected insurance commissioner, and Republican Ted Gaines, who won a seat on the Board of Equalization.
Runoffs won't be needed if any candidate wins more than half the vote. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters will advance to a June 4 special general election, no matter their political party.
The elections aren't likely to change the partisan makeup of the Senate, where Democrats hold a two-thirds majority. Republicans hold a 12 percentage point voter registration edge over Democrats in Gaines' former district, while nearly 55 percent of voters in Lara's old district are Democrats.
Six candidates are on the ballot to succeed Gaines in the massive northeastern 1st Senate District, which includes all or parts of 11 counties from the Oregon state line to south of Lake Tahoe.
They include two Republican assemblymen, Brian Dahle of Bieber and Kevin Kiley of Rocklin. Dahle represents nearly half the Senate district and Kiley about a third of the district, and the two could head to a June runoff if Dahle doesn't win outright, said Rob Pyers, research director at the nonpartisan California Target Book that tracks legislative races.
Dahle is the only one with significant outside backing, a third of a million dollars in independent expenditures funded mainly by prison guards and real estate agents.
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In an interesting twist, Steve Baird of Weimar challenged Gaines as a Republican in 2016, filed as a Democrat in the special election, then dropped out but remains on the ballot. A political mailer touting Dahle's endorsement by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association simultaneously urges Democrats to support Baird. That would draw votes from the lone remaining Democratic candidate, Silke Pflueger of Truckee.
Two other Republicans, Rex Hime of Loomis and Theodore Dziuba of Placerville, also are in the race.
Kiley held a slight lead with about 29 percent of the vote Tuesday night, but nearly half of the precincts still hadn't reported their totals. Dahle and Pflueger trailed close behind with about 27 percent each, according to results on the California Secretary of State's website.
Meanwhile, a dozen hopefuls are on the ballot in the 33rd Senate District in southeast Los Angeles County.
Nine Democrats may split the majority vote, but Lara endorsed Long Beach City Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez, as did Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal. Her fellow councilmember, Al Austin, withdrew from the race but his name remains on the ballot.
Pyers called Gonzalez "the odds-on favorite" given her endorsements and fundraising advantage, but said a same-party runoff election is likely because there are so many candidates. Energy companies and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor have independently spent more than $1.3 million backing Gonzalez, eclipsing independent expenditures for other candidates.
Gonzalez jumped out to an early lead, garnering just over 30 percent of the vote with only three of the 185 precincts reporting by Tuesday night. Cudahy Councilman Jack Guerrero, a Republican, had just over 16 percent.
"I think the race for second is pretty much wide open," Pyers said.
The seven other Democrats are startup CEO Thomas Jefferson Cares of Long Beach, South Gate Councilwoman Denise Diaz, Cudahy Councilman Chris Garcia, Bell Vice Mayor Ana Maria Quintana, Bell Councilman Ali Saleh, Lynwood Mayor Jose Luis Solache, and former Lynwood mayor Leticia Vasquez Wilson.
Guerrero and Republican Martha Flores Gibson of Long Beach did not report any significant spending on the race, nor did Green Party candidate Cesar Flores of Paramount.