- Associated Press - Friday, March 7, 2014

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Even in an election year that appears favorable for national Republicans, California Democrats are confident they will retain their iron grip on state leadership and possibly enrich their share of House seats in Washington.

But for all the political saber-rattling, a gathering of party delegates in Los Angeles this weekend could be significant for what goes unsaid.

The party has plenty to celebrate, with Democrats controlling every statewide office and both chambers of the Legislature, along with a commanding 2.6 million voter edge in registrations. Gov. Jerry Brown appears headed for an unprecedented fourth term, after taming California’s seemingly perpetual budget deficits with the help of a tax increase and a gradually improving economy.

But Democrats in the state Senate count among their ranks a newly convicted felon, Sen. Roderick D. Wright, and Sen. Ron Calderon, who is facing federal bribery charges. Republicans eager to gain ground in November have depicted the two cases as evidence of a broken, one-party government.

Republicans also have plenty of contentious issues to raise during this year’s campaigning. Among them: the $68 billion high-speed rail train that is Brown’s signature project but has lost much of its public support; hundreds of billions of dollars in looming pension and retiree health care debt for public employees; and a water storage and distribution system that has failed to keep pace with California’s growth.

Some Democrats fear their voters might stay home in November, with no hot race at the top of the ticket to generate excitement and polls showing many voters disenchanted with Congress and the Legislature. That could hurt the party in any of two dozen or more competitive congressional and state legislative contests, they say.

Republicans, meanwhile, could be eager to get to the polls to send a message on the national health care overhaul or to break the Democratic supermajorities in the state Legislature, which give the party a lock on statehouse power.

“Any Democrat in a competitive district who runs a traditional campaign … will be looking for work after Election Day,” Bob Mulholland, a longtime party consultant, warned in an email to delegates.

He’s predicting a possible record-low turnout in November and pointed to the recent mayor’s race in San Diego, where Republican Kevin Faulconer overcame a Democratic registration edge.

“I’m very concerned,” Mulholland said in an interview.

Party Chairman John Burton told hundreds of delegates Friday that it would take hard work for Democrats to hold their ground and possibly pick up seats.

“We cannot be complacent,” Burton warned. “It’s tough to be enthusiastic when you think you have a cinch.”

Talking earlier with reporters, Burton said the conviction of Wright and the indictment of Calderon did pose an obstacle for Democrats on the ballot this year. “What it says is Republicans haven’t got much going,” he said. “I don’t think it washes.”

By most measures, California presents a comfortable landscape for Democrats. The state counted more registered Republicans in 1988 than it does today, although the population has grown by about 10 million over that time, and you’d have to go back to that year to find a Republican presidential candidate who carried the state, George H.W. Bush.

Most political handicappers expect Democrats to retain their hold on the governorship, attorney general and other statewide offices this year, in part because of California’s Democratic tilt. GOP registration has dwindled to 28.7 percent.

The weekend convention in downtown Los Angeles is anchored to a speech Saturday by Brown, who formally kicked off his candidacy last month. He is expected to secure enough votes in the June primary - which will be run under the state’s new, top-two format - to move on to the general election. In November, Brown is expected to face one of two little-known Republicans, former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari of Laguna Beach or state Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Republican from the San Bernardino Mountains community of Twin Peaks.

Brown has a massive fundraising advantage over both.

Meanwhile, millions of dollars are pouring into competitive legislative and congressional races.

Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a speechwriter for former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, said rifts have appeared in the Democratic terrain that could affect those local races.

He pointed to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to break with Brown and oppose the bullet train, and an age gap between the ranks of younger Democratic voters and the party’s leadership - Brown, for example, is 75. In a recent interview, the governor sounded skeptical about legalizing marijuana, which could grate some younger voters.

“There are some cracks in the wall,” Whalen said.

While national Republicans are targeting numerous contests in states where President Barack Obama’s standing has tumbled, the president’s approval rating in California sits at 53 percent, according to a January survey by the independent Public Policy Institute of California.

That figure is well below his popularity during the early months of his tenure, however, and more California voters have been taking a less favorable view of him compared to last year, the poll found.

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