Democrats were within striking distance of a supermajority in the California Assembly Wednesday, and liberal groups were successful in their bid to throw out a moderate Democratic Assemblywoman who has opposed labor and environmental regulations.
But elsewhere, moderates reigned, and voters did little to upend the fractious balance of power between moderate and liberal lawmakers in the Democratic Party, giving Democrats only tepid gains on a night when they had hoped to sweep in more liberal candidates and score supermajorities in both houses.
Republican Assemblyman David Hadley of Torrance lost a rematch against Democrat Al Muratsuchi, while Republicans Eric Linder of Corona and Young Kim of Fullerton were narrowly trailing in two closely watched Assembly races. Democrats must win one of them to gain a supermajority.
Assemblywoman Catharine Baker of Dublin, the only Republican lawmaker from the San Francisco Bay Area, resoundingly defeated her Democratic challenger despite a strong Democratic tilt in the district. Democrats had targeted the seat as their top Assembly pickup prospect, and the loss marked a sharp defeat.
The Senate looked tougher for Democrats' supermajority hopes. Republican Ling Ling Chang had a narrow lead over Democrat Josh Newman in the only district left unresolved, but officials from both parties said it was still possible for uncounted ballots to give Newman the victory. It could be days before the contest is resolved.
A supermajority would give Democrats the option of raising taxes, suspending legislative rules, passing emergency legislation and overturning vetoes by the governor without any Republican support.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, said a supermajority is overrated. He pointed to a series of liberal priorities approved in the last year, including environmental regulations, a $15 minimum wage and overtime for farmworkers.
"We did that with a simple majority, not a supermajority, and it was a historic year on many levels," de Leon said. "The two-thirds supermajority is a false holy grail."
Left-leaning interest groups scored a victory in their attempt to oust Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernardino, who they say is too close to oil companies. Brown was defeated by attorney Eloise Gomez Reyes.
Triumphant unions warned other Democrats in strongly Democratic districts that there will be consequences if they vote against the unions, trial lawyers and environmentalists who funded Reyes' campaign.
"We're going to recruit a candidate and we're going to make sure that folks are representing their communities and not corporate interests," said Jim Araby, director of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Western States Council.
The Brown-Reyes race, made possible by California's top-two primary system, was emblematic of a deep divide in the Democratic Party. Liberals looking to aggressively combat climate and promote worker-friendly legislation have seen some of their most ambitious priorities stymied by more moderate Democrats — many in less affluent inland districts — worried about harming the economy.
In an open San Jose district where the moderate-liberal divide played a prominent role, union-backed Ash Kalra had a comfortable lead over the candidate favored by business, Madison Nguyen.
But in the East Bay, liberal Mae Torlakson was defeated by moderate Tim Grayson. And in the San Fernando Valley, liberal Democratic Assemblywoman Patty Lopez was defeated by the more moderate Democrat she defeated two years ago, Raul Bocanegra.
Republicans Dante Acosta and Jordan Cunningham also prevailed in open seats targeted by Republicans, while Assemblyman Marc Steinorth, R-Redlands, had a comfortable lead Wednesday.
On balance, said Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, the Assembly's ideological balance looks to be about the same, but "until members show up and start voting, it's hard to know how they're going to vote."