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Only 329 votes stood between Assembly Republicans and an upset special election victory last week in the San Fernando Valley's 45th Assembly District.

In September, a longtime Republican-newly-registered-independent finished just 400 votes behind the Democrat in the Inland Empire's 52nd Assembly District.

Wins in both seats would have eliminated Assembly Democrats' two-thirds supermajority in the lower house. Not only did Democrats barely eke out victories in districts where they have large registration advantages, an Assembly Republican caucus that regularly bemoans Democrats' dominance all but sat out the races.

Last week's close finish has prompted grumbling that the caucus missed another chance to increase its relevance and give a morale-boosting shot in the arm to the California GOP heading into an election year. In a special election in July, Senate Republicans picked up a Central Valley seat with strong Democratic leanings.

"Unfortunately we did miss an opportunity there," Assemblyman Brian Jones, R-Santee, said of last week's outcome in the 45th, where Democrat Matt Dababneh has declared victory over Republican Susan Shelley. Shelley has until Monday to request a recount.

"I don't think anybody could have predicted that turnout was going to be that low," Jones said. "When turnout is that low, Republicans tend to turn out to vote and Democrats don't."

Jones and others, though, note that Democrats would have countered any Republican attempt to move money and resources into the Assembly race.

Democratic strategist Roger Salazar said last week's election was an uncomfortably close call for Democrats, who thought Dababneh would win easily in a district that President Barack Obama carried by almost 30 percentage points last fall.

"This was as close as they were going to get," Salazar said. "Had the Republicans put any visible effort into it, Democrats would have countered and the result would have been the same."

Woodland Hills author Susan Shelley, the Republican candidate in the 45th, said her positions as a fiscal conservative with moderate views on social issues matched those of district voters.

Some Republicans, though, have said the party would have had no chance at holding the 45th or 52nd next year. The party also has much less money to throw around than Democrats.

Yet other Republicans have noted that having more Republicans in office would help GOP fundraising. Democrats also would have to divert resources to win back the seats while protecting vulnerable incumbents.

In a statement, Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway said recent election results show that Republicans will have a good year in 2014.

"We had strong candidates who fit their districts and we were competitive in seats that Republicans have traditionally had no showing," Conway said. "We are recruiting candidates and building the infrastructure in seats we can win and hold in 2014 and beyond."

Democrats reached two-thirds majorities in both houses last November. Since then, seven Assembly and Senate districts have gone vacant after their occupants won elections to other offices or resigned.

Most of the subsequent special elections to fill the vacancies have had little drama. But new political lines, top-two primaries, and low turnout have contributed to Democratic heartburn in some races.

In May, Bakersfield Democrat Leticia Perez barely made it into a runoff against Hanford Republican Andy Vidak in the 16th Senate District to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Michael Rubio. Vidak went on to defeat Perez in July.

That same night, Pomona Democrat Freddie Rodriguez made it into the September runoff against Ontario Mayor Paul Leon, an independent. Rodriguez' finish followed a $139,000 infusion of Democratic cash only days before the election. It came after private polls reportedly showed that Leon and Dorothy Pineda, the sole Republican in the race, would advance to the runoff.

Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino, was the only Assembly Republican who gave to Pineda. Republicans gave no support to Leon's Assembly campaign in the runoff.

In the 45th, Shelley said she received campaign contributions from Conway and Assembly members Jeff Gorrell and Scott Wilk. She declined to say whether she had asked for additional help.

"We're all aggravated," Shelley added. "To lose an election by 329 votes is always aggravating. I'm sure Democrats are aggravated, too."

PHOTO: Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway during the first day of the legislative session at the state Capitol on Monday, Dec. 3, 2012. The Sacramento Bee/Hector Amezcua


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