California's new primary process and political maps make their statewide debut today, as voters head to the polls to cast their ballots. The changes have resulted in more competitive races across the state and made outcomes in some cases more difficult to predict. Here are some key issues and races we will be watching today:
'No party preference' winners
The independent label is growing in popularity as more and more voters shed their major party registration. Can candidates ride that wave to the November runoff? Thirty-six candidates with no party preference will appear on today's ballot.
One independent getting a lot of attention has been Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks, who is considered to have a good shot to make the runoff in the 26th Congressional District.
National Democrats have rallied behind Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, their choice to advance to November along with expected runoff candidate Tony Stickland, a Republican state senator. Other noteworthy "no party preference" candidates include former Vacaville mayor Len Augustine, (Assembly District 11), college teacher Greg Laskaris (Assembly District 77), Chad Condit, (Congressional District 10), former GOP Assemblyman Anthony Adams (Congressional District 08) and businessman Bill Bloomfield (Congressional District 33). As the only challenger to incumbent Democrat Paul Fong, Chad Walsh is guaranteed a spot in the Assembly District 28 runoff.
Incumbents in trouble
Four members of the state Assembly facing serious challengers are worth watching today. A Republican challenger to Assemblyman Allan Mansoor, R-Costa Mesa, has been boosted by significant spending by Stanford physicist and major GOP donor Charles T. Munger, Jr.
Rocklin Republican Beth Gaines is being challenged from the right by Republican Andy Pugno, the author of California's ban on same-sex marriage, in the safe GOP seat she represents. In that case, Munger has stepped in to help out the incumbent Republican.
Assemblywoman Betsy Butler found herself in a tough race against fellow Democrat Torie Osborn when she moved into a West Hollywood district to run for a second term. Labor unions have also kicked in cash to help one of Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly's challengers in the safe GOP 33rd Assembly District.
Some congressional incumbents are also facing tough races. Republican Rep. Gary Miller, for example, is running in a crowded field in a district he had to move to in order to run. Several other incumbents are considered vulnerable in the fall.
One feature of the new system is that it allows November races to be fought out between two members of the same party. Observers say that could be the case in dozens of races, including the slugfest between Democratic Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman in the San Fernando Valley's 30th Congressional District.
Races sure to go in this direction include Democratic Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod's challenge to Democratic Rep. Joe Baca in the 35th Congressional District and the 15th Senate District race between Assemblyman Jim Beall and former Assemblyman Joe Coto. In both cases, the dueling Democrats are the only ones on the ballot.
Rise of the moderates?
A handful of committees are spending big to back the more moderate candidate in open state legislative races. The business-backed California Chamber of Commerce chipped in for the more moderate Democrat in several open seats, running independent expenditures for Stockton City Councilwoman Susan Eggman in the 13th Assembly District and Orange County Clerk-Recorder Tom Daly in the 69th Assembly District. Mansoor's Republican opponent is considered more moderate as well.
The quest for two thirds
Senate Democrats believe the newly drawn maps give them a good chance of picking up the two seats they need to secure a supermajority in the upper house. Reaching the 27-vote threshold would allow majority Democrats to approve taxes without getting any Republicans on board.
Capitol insiders are watching the outcomes in races in three key swing seats.
As the only Democrat on the ballot, Stockton Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani should easily make the runoff in the 5th Senate District. Senate Republicans are hoping to see Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, R-Stockton, beat out San Joaquin County Supervisor Leroy Ornellas for the second spot.
Down in Riverside County, Senate Democrats are trying to help attorney and retired Air Force Gen. Richard Roth make it into the runoff over fellow Democrat Steve Clute, a former assemblyman who received the endorsement of the California Democratic Party. Advisers to Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg believe Roth has a better chance of beating GOP Assemblyman Jeff Miller, the only Republican in the race, in November.
Good old-fashioned ballot brawls:
There's no shortage of showdowns featuring staples of the California political scene.
The 57th Assembly District race between former Democratic Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez and Ian Calderon, son of Assembly majority leader Charles Calderon, has fueled attacks and ethics complaints.
Former Democratic Assemblywoman Hannah Beth Jackson and Oxnard Harbor Commissioner Jason Hodge, husband of Assemblywoman Fiona Ma are going head-to-head for the 19th Senate District.
While Berman-Sherman has been the battle royale on the California congressional scene, it's far from the only slugfest. The race between Democratic Sen. Juan Vargas and former Democratic Sen. Denise Ducheny in San Diego's 51st Congressional District has been nasty at times. Back up north, Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, and former GOP Sen. Sam Aanestad are fighting for the conservative vote in the 1st Congressional District.
Will big money buy big wins?
The number of competitive races and the unknowns of the new system sent a flood of independent dollars into many of these races. Independent expenditure committees have spent more than $12 million to influence the outcomes in dozens of contests.
The biggest spending has come in the San Fernando Valley's 46th Assembly District, where groups have dropped more than $2 million for and against charter school executive Brian Johnson, a Democrat running in the crowded field for the open seat.
The new maps and voting process have also sparked some unconventional expenditures. A committee backed by business, insurance and medical interests, for example, has been spending to try to help a little-known Republican into the runoff against Democratic Sen. Rod Wright in the 35th Senate District. That would allow Wright, who is considered a business-friendly moderate, to avoid facing a more liberal Democratic opponent in the heavily Democratic district in the fall. SuperPACs have also been playing in some of the hot congressional races, including in the 26th Congressional District, where the House Majority PAC has spent more than $700,000 in hopes of ensuring that Brownley out-ballots Parks to make it to the November election.
Have questions or comments on these races or others that you are tracking today? Join Torey Van Oot for a 6 p.m. live chat on what to watch at sacbee.com.