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Pedro Rios

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Rod Thornburg / Special to The Californian

Republican candidate Romeo Agbalog is running for State Assembly.

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Rod Thornburg / Special to The Californian

Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Retired Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Bakersfield

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Assemblywoman Connie Conway, R-Tulare, the Assembly Republican leader.

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State Senator Jean Fuller.

Two out of three candidates in the 32nd Assembly District race have ties to longtime Republican political consultant Mark Abernathy, but only one hopeful currently employs him.

The contest pits Republicans Romeo Agbalog, a Delano Union School District trustee, and teacher and farmer Pedro Rios against incumbent Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield.

Salas, who did not respond to a request for comment, is virtually certain to finish in the top two and continue to the November general election.

In the fundraiser battle, Agbalog, a political staffer, has a certain celebrity factor.

His May 9 event at a horse ranch near southeast Bakersfield, has as its keynote speaker former Congressman Bill Thomas, R-Bakersfield, who represented Bakersfield from 1974 to 2007 -- four years as state assemblyman, the rest in U.S. Congress.

The evening is co-hosted by termed-out Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway, R-Visalia, and Agbalog's boss, state Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield.

"He's done a great job on the school board investing in education and balancing budgets. He's proven his leadership and puts the needs of the people of the Central Valley first," Conway said in a statement. "He will be a fine public servant to represent our area."

Rios' event has name recognition, too.

His fundraiser May 13 at a hall in Hanford has as its keynote speaker Michael Reagan, son of former President Ronald Reagan. It's co-hosted by Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield.

Rios also has Abernathy, whose Bakersfield political consultancy firm Western Pacific Research has worked for everyone from Thomas to Agbalog to, well, Rios, who employed it unsuccessfully in his 2012 contest against Salas and is using it again.

"The last time, I was the underdog. The last primary, Jon McQuiston had all the endorsements, all the powers aligned to him and we still overcame," Rios said. "I have full confidence they're going to continue to do their best in helping in our campaign. I have peace of heart."

Rios bested McQuiston, then a Kern County Supervisor, in the 2012 primary, losing to Salas in the general election.

In an interview, Thomas said Rios' lack of success was one factor helping him decide whom to endorse.

"Mr. Abernathy's candidate had the opportunity last time," Thomas said. "This time, I don't think a retread makes a lot of sense. The congressman, the state senator, members of the assembly and myself don't."

Abernathy did not respond to a request for comment.

Thomas said Agbalog's background was important as well.

"It seems to me if the people of this area really wanted to structure a political force in Sacramento, electing agriculture with (Andy) Vidak in the Senate and Valadao over that structure, that would be a terrific combination to represent the interests, not just of the economic forces in the area, not just agriculture, but also the ethnic variety which that district represents," Thomas said.

Agbalog -- who said he used Western Pacific Research as his political consultants during his 2004 run for school board, and again in 2008 but only for campaign finance reporting -- said he was truly moved by Thomas's support.

"I'm humbled and honored to have Congressman Thomas participate. He's renowned and a revered leader and I'm humbled that he believes in my campaign," said Agbalog, who on Monday announced the endorsement of Congressman David Valadao, R-Hanford.

Mark Salvaggio, a former Bakersfield City Council representative and current staffer for Kern County Supervisor David Couch, said having Vidak, R-Hanford, Valadao and Agbalog simultaneously representing Kern County would be significant.

"I think the bigger issue here is what's good for the valley, and (Thomas is) absolutely correct in saying a Valadao, Vidak and Romeo Agbalog combination is important," Salvaggio said.

Candi Easter, chair of the Kern County Democratic Central Committee, said Democrats aren't exactly sitting on their hands.

"Salas is going to do very well in the primary and also starting next week, we're bringing in a team of people to register voters," Easter said. "We're looking to register 10,000 new voters in his district."

Others connected to the race have interesting connections as well.

Fuller also has ties to Abernathy, having employed Western Pacific Research as recently as March, according to campaign documents filed with the Secretary of State. She is, however, unopposed.

In perhaps the race's most curious twist, Agbalog, Rios and McQuiston all have links to ... each other.

The Romeo Agbalog for Trustee campaign finance report for the first nine months of 2004, when Agbalog was running for school board, lists McQuiston and Rios as contributors.

Agbalog, who was a McQuiston staffer during the latter's time as supervisor, received $100 from him.

Rios, who will face Agbalog at the polls, was a Delano councilman in 2004 and gave Agbalog's campaign $125.

Closing the circle, Rios confirmed the donation and said Agbalog had previously introduced him to Abernathy.