Tax initiative, House races lead Calif. ballot

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The marquee races are foregone conclusions, with Californians poised to vote overwhelmingly Tuesday for President Barack Obama and re-elect Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, but the ballot is still full of high-stakes races below the top of the ticket.

Many of those, including Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiative and numerous congressional and legislative races, appear to be toss-ups in an election year dominated by immense campaign spending.

Mitt Romney didn’t waste time or money fighting for left-leaning California, where it’s been a generation since a Republican presidential candidate carried the state. Feinstein, seeking her fourth full term, has faced only token opposition from Republican Elizabeth Emken, a little-known autism activist from the San Francisco Bay area city of Danville whose only prior campaign experience was finishing last in a GOP congressional primary in her home district.

An array of ballot proposals — 11 in all — touch on everything from higher taxes to food labeling.

Proposition 30 is the Democratic governor’s request to have taxpayers send $6 billion more a year to Sacramento to help close the state’s budget deficit and prevent deep cuts to public education.

It’s the top statewide issue on a ballot that also includes Proposition 38, a rival tax hike initiative sponsored by wealthy attorney Molly Munger, Proposition 32, an attempt to curb union clout at the statehouse, Proposition 37, which would require the labeling of genetically modified foods, and Proposition 34, a repeal of the infrequently enforced death penalty.

California has the nation’s most populous death row, with 726 inmates, yet has carried out just 13 executions while spending $4 billion for housing Death Row inmates and paying for their appeals since capital punishment resumed in 1977.

At least $350 million has been spent on the 10 initiatives and one referendum on Tuesday’s ballot.

While the presidential and U.S. Senate races have been a yawn in the state, California is a nationally watched battleground for the House of Representative as Democrats try to position themselves to regain the majority in 2014. About a dozen congressional races are considered competitive, thanks in large part to California’s new independent redistrict process that redrew congressional and state legislative boundaries.

The outcome in some House battles could continue, or hold back for now, a trend of shriveling Republican political strength in California. Democrats control the Legislature and every statewide office, hold a 2.6 million voter edge statewide, and records released last week showed GOP registration had dropped below 30 percent statewide.

The amount of money spent so far on House races by super PACs and other outside groups — $54 million, and rising — shows their importance to both major parties.

In the state Senate, Democrats are aiming at a supermajority — a grip on two-thirds of the seats — which would allow the party to punch through tax increases without Republican votes. The Assembly should remain firmly in Democratic control, but the party is expected to fall short of the two-thirds margin that would push Republicans to the sidelines.

The competitive landscape in the congressional and legislative races — by far the most seats in play in memory — was set in motion after a voter-authorized citizens panel took control of crafting district boundaries and voters installed a new primary system that sends only the top two vote-getters to the November ballot. In some cases, those candidates are from the same party.

Those changes were intended to open the way for more moderate candidates, but it’s not clear if that will change the political complexion of officeholders. Meanwhile, the intraparty battles have created some of the nastiest contests this year.

In Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley area, for example, Democrats Brad Sherman and Howard Berman are wrapping up a race that even got physical when Sherman roughly grabbed the smaller Berman by the shoulder during a debate, pulled him toward his chest and bellowed, “You want to get into this?” Rep. Pete Stark, the long-serving member of California’s congressional delegation, faces a strong challenge from a fellow Democrat, Dublin city councilman Eric Swalwell.

In San Diego, the new mayor will represent a break from the past, regardless of who wins. Democratic hopes are riding with Rep. Bob Filner, who could capture an office that has eluded the party for most of four decades, but City Councilman Carl DeMaio could make San Diego the most populous U.S. city to choose an openly gay Republican leader.

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