SACRAMENTO -- The June primary marks the start of a statewide battle between Democrats trying to retain power as a supermajority voting bloc in California's Legislature and Republicans eager to prevent de-facto one-party rule.
And two Kern County races are key battlegrounds in the fight.
While 100 legislative seats are up for grabs, just a handful of competitive races, particularly in Orange County and the Central Valley, will determine whether Democrats will have the power to raise taxes, pass emergency legislation, put measures on the ballot and override gubernatorial vetoes.
This year's races have political implications for the rest of the decade because expanded term limits will allow incumbents to stay in one house for longer, up to 12 years. New district lines and a relatively new top-two election system meant to promote moderate candidates also are shaping the legislative races.
Less clear is whether voters will be swayed by criminal cases against three Democratic state senators because two of them are being termed out at the end of the year. Sens. Ronald Calderon of Montebello and Leland Yee of San Francisco were suspended after being indicted on federal bribery and corruption charges.
A third Democrat, Sen. Rod Wright, was suspended after being convicted earlier this year of voter fraud and perjury for lying about his legal residence in Los Angeles County.
California Target Book publisher Allan Hoffenblum, who analyzes legislative and congressional races, said Democrats are particularly concerned about holding onto supermajority status in the Senate because the upper house has the power to confirm gubernatorial appointees.
Republicans, eager to rebuild their diminished ranks, are looking to capitalize on voter dissatisfaction with the nation's economic recovery by picking off a few legislative seats and preventing Democrats from having too much control. They say voters believe the economy is on the wrong track and are critical of President Barack Obama's poor execution of the health care overhaul.
Democrats are aligning themselves with Gov. Jerry Brown, who is running for a fourth term. They are making the case that by working with the Democratic governor, the majority party was able to steer California back in the right direction following the recession's budget crisis and restore education funding.
"The Republicans have nobody to enthuse at top of the ticket," said John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party.
There are currently 25 Democrats and 12 Republicans serving in the Senate. With three Democratic senators suspended, Democrats dropped below the 27 votes they need for supermajority status.
California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte said eliminating the Democratic stronghold in both houses is a primary goal for the party. The GOP pathway involves defending incumbents in competitive seats, picking up a newly drawn seat in Riverside County and picking up a crucial seat in Orange County.
Ground zero for regaining the Democrats' two-thirds majority in the 40-member Senate is Senate District 34.
Democrats are trying to return former Assemblyman Jose Solorio to the Capitol, but he's being challenged by Orange County Supervisor Janet Nguyen, a Republican. Long Pham, a Republican former member of the Orange County Board of Education, also is running.
Solorio describes himself as a battle-tested moderate who will get more done for the residents of Santa Ana and Long Beach by working with the party in power. He cites budget reform and workers compensation among some of his accomplishments.
"A Democratic senator is going to be more influential for delivering Long Beach and Orange County priorities," he said.
Nguyen says democracy suffers when one party dominates, so she is campaigning on a platform of jobs, public safety and education. She is especially critical of Brown's three-year-old prison realignment law, which increased the burden on local governments and contends it has led to an increase in theft and burglaries.
The average candidate in 2012 spent $700,000 for an Assembly seat and $1 million for a Senate seat, according to MapLight, which tracks campaign finance. The candidates for SD34 are expected to exceed that substantially.
Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to reclaim Senate District 14, which includes western Kern County, parts of Bakersfield and Fresno. Republican Sen. Andy Vidak is defending the seat he won in a special election despite a Democratic voting edge.
Democrats have put up Luis Chavez, a Fresno school board member who has backing from labor. In a sign that the race is being targeted for November, the Democratic Party has contributed $200,000 to Chavez's campaign.
In the Assembly, Republicans are targeting Democrats Steve Fox in Los Angeles County's Antelope Valley and Sharon Quirk-Silva in Orange County. Brulte said the GOP has a formidable challenger for Quirk-Silva's 65th Assembly District in Young Kim, an aide to Congressman Ed Royce.
Democrats, meanwhile, see an opportunity to pick off open seats that are being vacated by Republicans, particularly in Ventura County. Democrats in the 80-member Assembly currently hold 55 seats compared to the Republicans' 25. The majority party needs to maintain 54 for supermajority status.
The "top two" primary system is also shaping certain districts in which two candidates from the same party are expected to advance to the general election.
In the Democratic strongholds of Contra Costa and Alameda counties, labor has committed to blocking Brown adviser and Orinda City Councilman Steve Glazer from advancing in Assembly District 16. Glazer was blacklisted by the California Labor Federation for working on an independent expenditure committee funded by the California Chamber of Commerce in two key Assembly races in 2012.
The California Teachers Association has put $500,000 into a committee called Californians for Economic Prosperity to back Tim Sbranti, the mayor of Dublin and a high school civics teacher, who oversaw the union's political action committee. Glazer is getting help from real estate agents and the chamber of commerce.
Several former lawmakers are seeking to return to the Legislature this election cycle.
Former Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi has already released a TV ad in Senate District 10 in Alameda and Santa Clara counties. A judge sentenced the Democrat to three years of probation after she pleaded no contest to stealing nearly $2,500 worth of clothing from Neiman Marcus in 2011. Her attorney blamed the thefts on a benign brain tumor.
Republican Bonnie Garcia, who was termed out of the Assembly in 2008, is hoping to capture a new Riverside County seat in Senate District 28. Garcia was the first Puerto Rican elected to the Legislature but her name landed in the national press when former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called her a "very hot" Latina for her temperament.
And Robert Hertzberg, a former speaker of the Assembly, is running in the safely Democratic Senate District 18. ABOUT THIS SERIES
This is one in a series of stories looking at the issues and people voters will see on their primary ballots June 3.