A Farmers’ Rebellion Lifts the California GOP
Story By Juliet Williams, Associated Press | The Mercury News STOCKTON, Calif.
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Story By ALLYSIA FINLEY | The Wall Street Journal Editorial Writer
May 24, 2013
Democrats were writing obituaries for California’s GOP after winning a supermajority in the state legislature last November, thus gaining veto-proof power to raise taxes. But their legislative lock may have slipped after this week’s special election in which Republican farmer Andy Vidak appears to have defeated a Democrat—in a heavily Democratic senate district—who had championed high-speed rail and a higher minimum wage.
If Mr. Vidak wins an outright majority—late Friday, he led with 49.8% of the vote and provisional ballots were still being counted—his victory would put Republicans two senate seats short of reclaiming their veto on tax hikes. But more important, the election has exposed the Democrats’ soft underbelly in California’s Central Valley—a no man’s land in state politics—and given Republicans a rallying point.
“This is the shot in the arm that shows that we are doing some things right,” California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House GOP whip, says.
Three months ago, Democratic state senator Michael Rubio surprised his party by resigning midway through his first term to take a job in Chevron’s lobbying shop. The 35-year-old moderate from Bakersfield had just been elevated to head the senate Environmental Quality Committee and was expected to propose regulatory reforms the week he tendered his resignation.
While Mr. Rubio cited personal issues for leaving the legislature—he has a daughter with special needs—another likely concern was the realization that his career and clout in Sacramento were limited by who he was and where he came from. Unlike his coastal counterparts, Mr. Rubio supported exploiting the rich hydrocarbon and shale deposits that underlie his Valley district.
The oil industry, he told a local TV station in February, shared his view “that we need to provide an opportunity for people to go to work and provide for their families”—a statement that borders on heresy in California’s Democratic Party.
After delivering pro forma eulogies for Mr. Rubio, Democrats in Sacramento chose Kern County supervisor Leticia Perez to run for his vacated seat. They figured that a young Latina with a background as a public defender would have no trouble winning in a gerrymandered district that was 60% Hispanic and in which Democrats boasted a 22-point registration advantage. In 2010, Mr. Rubio won the seat by a 21-point margin.
Meanwhile, local farmers and businesses recruited the 47-year-old Mr. Vidak, a third-generation Valley farmer who narrowly lost his challenge to Democratic Rep. Jim Costa in 2010, to run on the Republican ticket. The white, middle-aged man appeared to come straight from the California GOP’s central casting, but Mr. Vidak is more salt-of-the-earth than many of his new compatriots in Sacramento.
“My dream always was to have a few cows,” Mr. Vidak says. After graduating from Texas Tech in 1991 with a degree in animal business, he worked agricultural jobs in California. With his savings, he bought land in Kings County to grow cherries and raise a small herd of cattle in the hills of Tulare. Such is the California dream east of the coastal ranges.
Mr. Vidak’s campaign theme was the bifurcation of California: the coastal liberal elites versus the Valley folks. “We’re getting left behind here,” he says. “They don’t view us as important.”
Case in point: The unemployment rate in Mr. Vidak’s district is about 15%—two to three times as high as in the Bay Area—and exceeds 30% in some communities. The culprit? “Our water has been cut off by the far left,” he says.
Regulations to protect smelt from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta water pumps have created a California water shortage, which is particularly acute in the Valley. This year farmers south of the delta will receive only 20% of their contracted allocations. An irking irony is that the smelt’s biggest killer is the wastewater that Sacramento dumps into the delta.
“It’s fish versus farmer,” he says, and liberals are siding with the fish.
Other species-protection policies have removed thousands of acres of land from production, endangering the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers. Meanwhile, California’s bullet train, beloved by liberals, will slash through Mr. Vidak’s district and raze hundreds of farms, homes and businesses.
“We don’t have clean drinking water in some areas of our district,” Mr. Vidak says. “And they want to build an $80 billion bullet train!”
His election opponent, Ms. Perez, endorsed the bullet train “as the biggest jobs plan in California history.” However, she campaigned principally on raising the state minimum wage to $9.25 from $8, an issue that plays well in union-dominated, urban areas but didn’t resonate with the Valley’s farmers and small business owners.
Notwithstanding her Hispanic heritage, Ms. Perez appeared out of touch with Valley voters’ values and concerns. She raised twice as much money as Mr. Vidak, but 90% of her contributions came from outside the district.
Despite Democrats’ huge funding and voter advantage, Mr. Vidak was leading Ms. Perez by six points late Friday. If he fails to win an outright majority of the vote, the two will square off in a runoff on July 23.
Assuming Mr. Vidak wins, Democrats will have an opportunity to reclaim the seat in 2014. Yet they won’t have an easy time since he’d be defending a newly drawn district with a smaller Democratic voter advantage.
Democrats may have a tougher time at the polls in general next year: Green policies like the state’s renewable energy mandate, cap and trade and a low-carbon fuel standard will start kicking into high gear in 2014. What’s more, Mr. Vidak’s strong showing has put the state GOP in the unfamiliar position of feeling hopeful.
New party chairman Jim Brulte says the apparent upset is an encouraging sign that the pendulum in California is starting to swing the Republicans’ way. “Now will we be able to capitalize on it?”
Read the full article at The Wall Street Journal
Photo Credit: Bill Mahon Photo