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Michael Fagans / The Californian

Candidate for the 16th state Senate District seat, Republican Andy Vidak.

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Michael Fagans / The Californian

Candidate for the 16th state Senate District seat, Democrat Leticia Perez.

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Michael Fagans / The Californian

Candidate for the 16th state Senate District seat, Francisco Ramirez of Riverdale.

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Michael Fagans / The Californian

Candidate for the 16th state Senate District seat, Paulina Miranda of Fresno.

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Michael Fagans / The Californian

Candidate for the 16th state Senate District seat, Mohammad Arif of Bakersfield.

The 16th Senate District race will likely be decided one month from today.

If Kings County Republican Andy Vidak wins outright with more than 50 percent of the vote, he will deliver the California Democratic Party an embarrassing setback. But if Vidak doesn't win in May, he doesn't win at all.

That was the take of political observers this past week.

"(May) is the only way he wins an upset," said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which analyzes state races.

Democrats "just need to keep him from 50 percent, plus one," said former Kern County Assemblywoman Nicole Parra. "It's his to lose."

A May win is his only fighting chance because he'd likely lose in a head-to-head July general election match-up with Bakersfield Democrat and Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez, both Hoffenblum and Parra said.

The primary features three other hopefuls: Democrats Francisco Ramirez and Paulina Miranda and Peace and Freedom candidate Mohammad Arif.

But it's Perez and Vidak who are pooling campaign cash -- $360,000 for Vidak and $444,000 for Perez.

"It's becoming clear that (Vidak) is raising the money to make a serious attempt to win it in the primary," Hoffenblum said. "If I was Perez's campaign manager, I would be taking that threat very seriously."

Perez said she is taking the threat of a first round loss seriously.

"We begin our media buys this weekend and for the next few weeks," she said. "Today we secured the endorsements of firefighters."

Firefighters, California Highway Patrol officers and hundreds of students from all over the state will walk the district for her campaign, she said.

Ground game

The first vote-by-mail ballots hit 16th District mailboxes this week. Parra said the district will also be inundated with mailers, television spots and radio ads in the next few weeks as Perez and Vidak vie for status.

A poll of 400 likely voters released by the Vidak campaign shows Vidak with 45 percent of the vote, Perez with 21 percent and 22 percent of the voters undecided.

But Hoffenblum, Parra and former Bakersfield state Sen. Roy Ashburn say what will decide the race is how many voters the campaigns -- specifically Perez's -- turn out.

Turnout is always a deciding factor in campaigns. But its importance is magnified in this one, experts say, by the short special election primary timeline and because there are no other contests drawing voters to the polls.

Every voter who sides with someone other than Vidak dilutes his support and makes it harder for Vidak to claim a win.

"Yes, Vidak can win, especially in a special election where the turnout will be exceeding low," Ashburn said.

Shame game

Ashburn said one of the challenges for Perez is that her dedicated voters are miffed she is running for state Senate so soon after taking a seat on the Kern County Board of Supervisors.

Those voters might sit on the bench on Election Day, helping Vidak.

And that is where the three other challengers -- who are not given much of a chance to survive the primary -- could play a decisive role in the outcome.

Ramirez raised his profile Tuesday by launching fiery criticisms of Perez for running so soon after becoming a supervisor. Ashburn said Ramirez's move could deflate her voter turnout.

"Any of the other also-rans who raise the most difficult issue for Perez -- that helps Vidak," he said.

Perez counters the criticism by saying as a senator, she'd serve the same people she represents as a supervisor -- and be even better-positioned to do so.

Ramirez said he isn't trying to help Vidak, promising to attack him as well.

"The best is yet in store for Mr. Vidak," Ramirez said. "You're going to see a total firestorm for Mr. Vidak, Vedak, whatever his name is. Both camps are going to hate me before this is over."

He believes that an aggressive campaign on social media will put him into the runoff. But, if he doesn't make it, Ramirez said, he will support Vidak.

"I'm going to support a Republican. He can win it. I consider myself more of a Libertarian," he said.


All this means that 16th District voters should be prepared to see and hear a lot of campaign advertising in the next few weeks. Parra expects much of that to come from independent expenditure groups outside the control of the candidates.

And much of that advertising will be negative, she said.

Perez said she plans to keep her campaigning "clean" and will focus on getting supporters to voters' front door.

"We'll get past the primary, we'll be in the top two. We have the people on the ground. We have the enthusiasm," Perez said.

But she acknowledged that her campaign must boost turnout.

"If we can't inspire them to vote," she said, "we don't deserve the seat."

Hoffenblum said only one number will matter on May 21.

"It's not how many votes she gets," he said. "It's how many votes Vidak gets."