Democrats were stunned and demoralized when Republican Andy Vidak seized a west-side, Latino, left-leaning state senate seat from them in a bruising special election last summer.
Now they're desperate to get it back.
Their candidate for what's now called the 14th Senate District post is Luis Chavez, a Fresno Unified School District trustee and the chief of staff for a Fresno councilman.
It's a heavily Latino district with nearly 47 percent of voters registered as Democratic, compared to 30 percent Republican.
Retaining the seat is a crucial part of a GOP rebuilding effort in a state where Democrats hold all of the executive offices and until March had supermajorities in the state Assembly and Senate.
The issues that most bitterly divide Chavez and Vidak, a Hanford cherry farmer, are high-speed rail, fracking and how to grapple with California's dire drought.
The two men do share some common ground, including the importance of vocational education and the disaster both say would ensue if the state regulated or legislated medical marijuana as has been done with alcohol.
There's commonality on immigration, too. Both men support a pathway to citizenship for immigrants, and last year Vidak was one of only two Republican senators to vote for a bill granting driver's licenses to those in the country illegally.
The primary is June 3, but it's perfunctory. No matter the outcome, the two men will face each other again in the November general election.
Like Chavez, a former community college teacher, Vidak has a direct connection to education -- but identifies himself as a farmer.
Vidak also has a longtime interest in water rights. In January he co-authored Senate Bill 927 with state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, an alternative water bond that trimmed $1.9 billion out of the current bond being considered by the state legislature.
Vidak and Chavez agree water is the issue of the moment. Each claims to own the issue.
"Right now, I think there's seven water bond proposals. Unfortunately, it's going nowhere. You've got to get all those folks in the room and hammer out a compromise," Chavez said, hitting a common party theme that Vidak's political affiliation gridlocks him in a Democrat-controlled legislature.
"You can introduce a thousand pieces of legislation -- and unfortunately for Andy, he can't get his bills out of committee. If he can't get them out of committee, how are they going to get a vote?"
This isn't entirely true. The Vidak-authored Senate Bill 942, which would reimburse counties for the cost of special elections to fill a vacancy in the state legislature or Congress, made it out of Senate committee last month by unanimous vote.
SB 927 lacked enough votes to emerge from senate committee Tuesday -- but earned bipartisan support and inclusion in future consensus discussions on a final water bond measure.
"Anyone that says my party affiliation is causing gridlock is simply ignorant of the facts and they're engaging in partisan politics -- campaign posturing that won't be tolerated by valley voters," Vidak said, noting he's co-authored more than 20 bills with Democrats, addressing such issues as helping small businesses achieve tax incentives, preserving unemployment benefits and expanding newborn health screenings.
Vidak has said the state must pass a water bond, and highlights his own history as proof he's the man for the job.
"I'm a farmer. I'm fourth generation -- not (just) fourth generation farmer (but) fourth generation Tulare County and Kings County. My grandparents and my father watched that canal being built," Vidak said of the Friant-Kern Canal. "I know water inside and out and I've been at it since day one."
His water history aside, the eight-month senator has authored and introduced four bills aimed at putting the brakes on high-speed rail:
* SB 901 would temporarily halt the sale of bonds to fund the bullet train -- and ask voters to decide in November whether they'd like to make that permanent;
* SB 902 would require the California High-Speed Rail Authority to pay owners fair market value for property it buys for the bullet train, or pay off their property loans -- whichever amount is greater;
* SB 903 is aimed at preserving property tax payments on land bought for the bullet train. It would require the CHSRA pay counties 1 percent yearly of the purchase price of land it buys for the train. That percentage would increase by 2 percent per year to account for inflation; and
* SB 904 would require CHSRA surveyors to get permission from landowners before coming on their land to survey it.
All four bills were defeated Tuesday afternoon by the state Senate's Transportation and Housing Committee.
Vidak questioned the government's mandate to spend more money on the train, saying it has already breached the public trust by failing to attract private investment, or maintain its promised 200-mph speed.
"You're talking about billions of dollars for a train when we should be investing it in our courts, our educational system," said the senator. "There are so many places where could it could be used."
His opponent sees things differently.
Chavez said voters approved the train so lawmakers must build it -- and building it is how he would create jobs.
"I'm supportive of the jobs it will bring, but at the end of the day you can do 10 press conferences -- it's a state and federal mandate with which we have to comply," said Chavez, who favors moving the train out of Kings County, laying tracks along existing transportation corridors like Highway 99 and giving tax breaks to businesses forced to move out of its way.
DANGER OF FRACKING REGULATION
Both men oppose Senate Bill 4, the first-ever state fracking regulation bill approved last year, and both recognize its potential effects on Kern County employment.
It requires oil companies to give advance notification to neighbors before fracking, and to monitor groundwater before and after, among other measures.
Vidak is an avowed opponent, and said the permitting process for fracking has to be sped up to keep oil rigs and oil jobs from moving out of state.
"We have to get back to where we were at. We have to get these permits going. My opponent seemed to think it was a great deal. I don't think he realized we're losing jobs today," Vidak said.
Chavez said he thought the legislation was a good compromise and is confident the oil in Kern County will create half a million jobs.
"For me, we have to be able to balance that with the concerns that some people have. The governor did a good job of brokering this deal with the environmental folks and the energy industry -- the oil companies -- and having these safeguards in place," Chavez said. "I don't think jobs will be going out of state because we have the oil here. We have a precious commodity that the world uses and I think we should take advantage of that every which way we can."
VOCATIONAL EDUCATION NEEDED
The opponents agree on another form of job creation -- vocational education, saying they recognize not every student is cut out to attend a four-year university.
Chavez points to the importance of programs like Linked Learning, which offers high school students incremental exposure to professional fields -- narrowing their choices as freshmen, shadowing workers as sophomores and getting hands-on experience as juniors.
He said the program is being piloted at three or four Fresno Unified high schools with plans for a district-wide rollout next school year, and could draw businesses to the valley if it trains more qualified job candidates.
"(O)ne reason some businesses are not incentivized to come to the valley (is) because our workforce development programs are not prepared to meet that demand," Chavez said. "I think as we progress through this program, businesses will be incentivized to come. That would be a win-win for us."
Vidak sees Proposition 30, a temporary tax to generate funding for education, and the Local Control Funding Formula, as proof bleak times for state schools are starting to reverse themselves.
He's been vocal in support of restoring $4.1 million to the Agriculture Education Incentive Grant Program for 2014-2015 -- funds that would benefit Future Farmers of America, among other groups -- calling it a "crucial issue to our valley."
Recently, however Vidak's effort to resolve transportation problem for schools in his district failed to gain traction.
He authored Senate Bill 1166, which sought to fully reimburse school districts for home-to-school transportation, but it fell two votes short last week of getting the support it needed to make it out of the Senate Education Committee.
The two candidates have more than a month before the primary and more than six months before the general election -- but the race is already taking shape.
In financials released last month, Chavez recorded $200,000 cash from the California State Democratic Central Committee.
This has not bowled over Republicans.
In a statement, Dean Haddock, chairman of the Kern County Republican Party, said Chavez's bid for state senate "after serving only one year on the school board is an aggressive time frame and will be noticed," but highlighted the inherent difficulty in taking on an incumbent.
Chavez actually was elected 17 months ago.
Candi Easter, chair of the Kern County Democratic Central Committee, said the race should generate millions of dollars in campaign contributions and spending as November nears, and blamed low voter turnout for Democratic candidate and Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez's poor showing in the special election against Vidak.
"That was a perfect storm for the Republicans and they've taken advantage of special elections all over the state," Easter said, observing, "This is a Democratic seat and (Vidak) could well hold it for 12 years if we're not able to take it back from him."