16th Assembly race is pivotal for California GOP, local Democrats

At their far from elegant “no host cocktail” inspired election night soiree held at the San Ramon Country Club, Contra Costa Republican Chairwomen Becky Koleberg had reason to be ecstatic.  For the first time in several years, the local GOP actually had something to celebrate. Republican candidate Catharine Baker won a plurality in the highly contested California legislature 16th Assembly race to replace termed out Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo).

Catherine Baker calls for end to BART StrikeBaker garnered 36.5% of the popular vote while her Democratic rivals received over 63% of the total while spending $2 million dollars between them in the primary.

After a bruising battle where pro union and Democratic Party favorite Tim Sbranti from Dublin, was able to edge out political insider Steve Glazer from Orinda. It remains to be seen how the votes of the losing candidates will translate in the fall election.

Between them Glazer, with 22.5% and former Danville mayor Newell Arnerich receiving 11.4% for his underfunded campaign, there are over one third of the total ballots from defeated Democratic Parties that will be re-cast in November.

Ordinarily, a progressive pro labor candidate like Sbranti would be considered a prohibitive favorite when facing off against a moderate Republican such as Baker. However, there are other factors to be taken into account in this election.

1. The 16th district has previously elected Republicans such as Bill Baker, Lynne Leach, and Guy Houston. It is more conservative than surrounding areas in the East Bay. Will this district go this same route again?

2. Will the supporters of Glazer, who took a firm stand against the rights of employees of BART to go on a work stoppage, want to support a candidate that was given over one million dollars from the teachers and public employee unions? Can those voters who preferred Glazer be expected to back Sbranti just because he is a Democrat, regardless of what Glazer’s endorsement might be?

tim-sbranti-stephanie3. What is to become of the votes that last place finisher Arnerich garnered? While this is a small percentage number of the ballots cast, his supporters could become the important swing vote in the run-off. Sources say many of Arnerich’s backers were turned off by both of his well funded Democratic foes. How this will translate in November is anyone’s guess.

4. How will the 16th Assembly race be influenced by the expected meager voter turn-in the fall which tends to assist Republican office seekers? With Jerry Brown a virtual lock to be re-elected and no Senate race to vote on in 2014, which political party will be able to get out the vote to help their win competitive races?

At both the regional and State level, interested parties are keenly aware of the importance of the 16th Assembly battle.  Republicans vigorously walked the precincts for Baker who was outspent an estimated 9 to 1 by her Democratic opponents.  This was one of the rate occurences where the GOP actually outworked their foes that historically depend on grass roots support coming from labor union activists.

In the fall election don’t expect the spending gap between Sbranti and Baker to be as wide as in the May 3rd primary.  As the first Republican candidate from the Bay area in almost a decade to have a real shot at winning, expect ample money to flow into the Dublin Republican’s war chest.  There is a lot of pent up  GOP energy that will be on display during this election.

In addition, it is believed that if Baker proves to be victorious, this might help break the Super Majority stranglehold that the Democratic Party has on the State Assembly.  One of Baker’s biggest issues put before voters is her contention that when one political party has their power going unchecked, poor legislation and corruption ensues.

When the smoke clears in November, experts will no doubt analyze the Baker-Sbranti race and its impact for the future of California politics. If the Democrats win, it will be considered a sustaining election as the party in power will keep the seat.

Should Baker come out ahead in the 16th Assembly race, the GOP will tout their triumph as a pivotal, sea-change event. It will rally Republicans to actively engage liberals and stop, what outspoken San Ramon City Council member Harry Sachs calls, “the defection of conservative office holders to become Independents or Democrats.”

Naturally, if Baker defeats Sbranti in the run-off, the powerful Democratic Central Committee in Contra Costa County would spin this result in another way.  They would no doubt consider a Republican victory to be merely an outlier, a “deviation” from the business as usual of Democratic Party hegemony because of low turn-out, midterm election blues, and the conservative nature of the district.

Such is the nature of politics. No one wants to admit they lost because of being out of touch with the voters.  This is why things were so lively at the Republican Party election night get together.  These people are so used to losing and saying that they are “building character in defeat and being right on this issues,” that tasting victory was a new phenomenon for them.

It will be most interesting to see what evolves in the Fall in  the 16th Assembly race between Catharine Baker and Tim Sbranti.  This “Super Bowl” of Contra Costa politics may go a long way to determine the future political landscape of the region.