Republican Andy Vidak emerged early Wednesday with a nearly 6,000-vote lead in a hotly contested special election on Tuesday to fill a Central Valley Senate seat put in play by a Democratic senator's abrupt departure in February.
With 100 percent of the district's precincts reporting but thousands of late mail-in and provisional ballots yet to be counted, Vidak tallied 54 percent of the vote to Democrat Leticia Perez's 46 percent.
In an interview with the Associated Press late Tuesday, Perez said she was hopeful she would overtake Vidak in the coming days as more votes are counted. Vidak told the AP he was "cautiously optimistic" his margin would hold through the vote tally in Fresno, Kings, Kern and Tulare counties.
Former senator Michael Rubio had been considered a moderate Democratic with a potentially pivotal role to play in overhauling the California Environmental Quality Act. But his surprise announcement that he was leaving the Legislature for a job with Chevron threw those plans into turmoil and ignited a fierce competition for the 16th Senate District seat.
Supporters poured millions into both campaigns, with independent organizations also flexing their muscle. Perez enjoyed substantial support from entities funded by powerful interests that include telecommunications firms, energy corporations and Indian tribes, as well as from labor unions. The California Association of Realtors backed Vidak.
If Vidak's leads holds up, the Democratic advantage in the Senate will be whittled to the bare minimum needed for the two-thirds supermajority secured in November elections. Democrats would control 27 seats, although they could bolster their majority if they hold the vacant seat that Democratic senator Curren Price recently departed for a spot on the Los Angeles City Council. The primary for Price's former seat is scheduled for September 17.
The winner will serve the remainder of Rubio's term, which expires in 2014. The current 16th Senate District has evaporated, courtesy of new lines drawn by a redistricting commission in 2010, so whoever wins will likely seek re-election in the newly forged 14th Senate district.
PHOTO: Andy Vidak, in May. Fresno Bee