Dem candidates race to replace Hilda Solis in California’s 32nd

Endorsements, a hefty war chest and an effective absentee ballot program appear to have put California Board of Equalization Vice Chairwoman Judy Chu (D) in position to succeed former Rep.-turned-Labor Secretary Hilda Solis (D-Calif.).

 But there are several factors that could throw a roadblock into the heavily favored Chu’s path: the large candidate field; the fact that another candidate with the same last name appears next to her on the ballot; expected low voter turnout; and virtually no public polling conducted in the race.

Tuesday’s special election in the heavily Democratic East Los Angeles district will be a blanket primary, which means candidates from every party will appear on the same ballot. If one candidate wins 50 percent plus one vote, he or she will be declared the winner. If no candidate garners that many votes — which likely will be the case — the top performers in each party will square off in the July 14 general election.

 The top two candidates in the race are Chu and state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D). Both have raised more than $900,000 and have significant endorsements, though Chu has raised more money and lined up more backers.

 On top of those advantages, Chu is likely to benefit from former Goldman Sachs banker Emanuel Pleitez, a 26-year-old Democrat who threatens to cut into Cedillo’s base among Hispanics, who make up 62 percent of the district.

 When asked if Pleitez could be a spoiler for Cedillo, Allan Hoffenblum, the publisher of the California Target Book, said bluntly, “Absolutely.”

Cedillo, seeing the threat, attacked Pleitez in two mailers. The pieces, which the Cedillo camp insists went to a small number of voters, used photos of Pleitez partying in college and alleged that he was flashing a gang sign in one of them. The photos caused significant backlash, though Cedillo’s camp says that has been overblown in the media.

 Emily Dulcan, a spokeswoman for Pleitez, said the mailers were “outright lies.”

 “We definitively think that’s a signal that Gil knows we’re cutting into his base,” she said.

 Eric Bauman, the chairman of the Los Angeles County Democrats, who are backing Chu, said the mailers turned the race negative.

 “It’s unfortunate that we’ve gotten into name-calling mode,” he said.

 But Hoffenblum and others cautioned against labeling Chu the presumptive Democratic nominee. The campaigns expect low turnout — between 15 and 25 percent — and acknowledged some guesswork in determining who will show up to the polls on Election Day.

Further complicating turnout models are California budget referendums that are also on Tuesday’s ballot. According to polling, every ballot measure Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) is pushing will fail and there appears to be significant anger at the state government over California’s rapidly deteriorating finances. That could drive up Republican turnout, observers said, and influence the Democratic contest between Chu, Cedillo and Pleitez.

 One Democratic strategist close to the race also noted that anger directed toward Sacramento could rub off on Cedillo, the top legislator in the field.

 “From a nuance point of view,” the strategist said, “Cedillo’s a state senator and is in the Legislature. The mindset could be, ‘You guys got us into this mess.’ ”

 While Cedillo has had to worry about Pleitez, Chu has had to counter Betty Chu, a Republican Monterey Park City Council member who will appear next to Judy Chu on the ballot. This Chu threatens to cut into Judy Chu’s base among the 18 percent of Asian voters who make up the district.

 Complicating matters further for Judy Chu, Betty Chu chose to have her name transliterated into Chinese on the ballot, opting for a symbol that bears a striking resemblance to Judy Chu’s Chinese character.

 As Parke Skelton, Judy Chu’s top strategist, deadpanned: “It’s kind of a problem for us.”

 Skelton countered the issue by playing up the difference in the two Chinese characters. Since Judy Chu’s character means, in part, “heart,” Skelton sent mail to Asian voters with an Americanized heart symbol around his candidate’s name, hoping to remind them to remember “heart” in the voting booth.

With such a low turnout, absentee voting could prove critical. Some sources involved in the campaigns said as many as half the votes could come via absentee ballots.

Because of that, both campaigns developed an absentee program, but local observers have been particularly impressed by Judy Chu’s campaign to make sure Asian voters, who often vote by absentee ballot, have mailed in their ballots.

Skelton said that as of Friday, between 16,000 and 17,000 voters had returned absentee ballots and 31 percent of those were Asian — far higher than the 18 percent of Asian voters in the district. He expects that there are another 4,000 absentees that were returned over the weekend, and expects to do well among those as well.

 “We had a very substantial door-to-door campaign generating absentee ballots,” he said.

 Skelton said that he is “optimistic” going into Tuesday and that the campaign’s internal polling has shown Chu to have a single-digit lead. He noted, though, that he expects the winner on the Democratic side to get by with about 30 percent of the vote.

 Cedillo’s camp, however, isn’t giving up any ground. Derek Humphrey, Cedillo’s campaign manager, believes he has a superior Election Day get-out-the-vote campaign in place.

 “We’ve got three campaign offices, five or six staging locations,” he said. “We’re everywhere in the district.”

 Humphrey also said he believes the campaign has effectively communicated Cedillo’s record.

 “It’s going to be a very highly educated electorate,” he said. “We’re running an aggressive grassroots campaign and we think the higher the turnout, the better off we are.”

 Humphrey said his polling shows the race too close to call, especially given unexpected turnout. He added, though, that the polls show Cedillo on top.

 The winner on the Democratic side will be heavily favored in the general election.