- Associated Press - Sunday, May 8, 2016

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - California’s June primaries bring the start of a high-stakes battle for power and influence in the state Legislature.

Democrats hope to regain two-thirds majorities in the state Assembly and Senate. Republicans aim to prevent that. And business interests want to protect and enhance that power of a bloc of moderate Democrats who have been willing to buck their party’s liberal leadership.

Wide-open races to replace term-limited lawmakers are highlighting deep ideological divides in both parties, while a number of former lawmakers, ousted by changing political fortunes, are seeking comebacks.

With 52 of 80 Assembly seats and 26 of 30 in the Senate, Democrats have overwhelming control of the Legislature. Even Republicans privately concede that they have no realistic shot at taking control of either chamber in November.

Instead, they’ll fight over supermajorities, which would allow Democrats to raise taxes or overturn gubernatorial vetoes without the need for any GOP votes. Democrats would need to gain two seats in the Assembly and one in the Senate for two-thirds majorities, which they last won in the 2012 election but lost two years later amid historically low turnout.

None is a bigger target than the East San Francisco Bay Area district where voters traditionally sent Democrats to Sacramento but are now represented by Republican Assemblywoman Catharine Baker of Dublin. Baker was elected in a 2014 surprise amid low turnout and a nasty fight that split the Democratic vote.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount, calls the race his No. 1 target for expanding the Democratic majority.

Baker has voted with Democrats on major issues, including carbon-reduction mandates and assisted suicide, and she’s pitching herself as a bipartisan dealmaker unconcerned with political labels.

“Folks in this district expect you to get results and not just partisan bickering,” Baker said. “That’s what I work on. I have a record on that.”

She’ll face Democrat Cheryl Cook-Kallio, a retired teacher and former Pleasanton City Council member who says she’s committed to shortening commutes and improving early education.

“As someone who grew up in California, lived here all my life, we’ve basically broken the promise to young people,” Cook-Kallio said.

Democrats are also eying the seats held by Republican Assembly members David Hadley of Torrance, Young Kim of Fullerton and Eric Linder of Corona. All are districts that supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Kim and Hadley will have rematches against the Democratic members they defeated two years ago, Sharon Quirk-Silva and Al Muratsuchi, respectively. Linder was the first Republican in more than two decades to get the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union, a powerful political force that almost exclusively backs Democrats.

Elsewhere, the battle isn’t between the parties, but within them.

June’s primary will be the third under California’s top-two primary system, in which the two candidates with the most votes advance to the November general election, no matter their party. That means voters in some districts will choose between two members of the same party.

Business groups have taken advantage, funneling millions of dollars to moderate Democrats who likely couldn’t win a traditional Democratic primary but could defeat a more liberal Democrat in the general election. The moderate Democrats, in turn, have sided with business interests on key labor and environmental issues.

In the Inland Empire, Democratic Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown of San Bernardino faces a tough challenge from a labor-backed opponent who says Brown sides with businesses against workers and the environment. Attorney Eloise Gomez-Reyes has enthusiastic backing from unions and liberal groups that are highlighting a $1 million contribution by Chevron to an independent group backing Brown.

Former Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra is looking to take his seat back from Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, of San Fernando, a fellow Democrat. Lopez stunned observers when she unseated Bocanegra two years ago.

In one strongly GOP district in the Sacramento suburbs, eight Republicans are on the ballot, including Deputy Attorney General Kevin Kiley, public relations executive Bill Halldin, and Andy Pugno, lead counsel for the campaign in favor of the Proposition 8 gay-marriage ban. There are so many Republicans that the race raises the prospect they’ll split the GOP vote and possibly send two Democrats on to November.

California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton predicted the unpopularity of Republicans who sought the GOP’s presidential nomination will help Democrats pick up seats. They’re aiming to gain “as many as one can get,” he said.

“It just doesn’t bode well for Republicans,” Burton said.

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