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A farmers rebellion gives hope to the GOP in California

Democrats were writing obituaries for California's GOP after winning a supermajority in the state legislature last November, thus gaining veto-proof power to raise taxes. But their legislative lock may have slipped after this week's special election in which Republican farmer Andy Vidak appears to have defeated a Democrat—in a heavily Democratic senate district—who had championed high-speed rail and a higher minimum wage.
If Mr. Vidak wins an outright majority—late Friday, he led with 49.8% of the vote and provisional ballots were still being counted—his victory would put Republicans two senate seats short of reclaiming their veto on tax hikes. But more important, the election has exposed the Democrats' soft underbelly in California's Central Valley—a no man's land in state politics—and given Republicans a rallying point.
"This is the shot in the arm that shows that we are doing some things right," California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House GOP whip, says.
Three months ago, Democratic state senator Michael Rubio surprised his party by resigning midway through his first term to take a job in Chevron's lobbying shop. The 35-year-old moderate from Bakersfield had just been elevated to head the senate Environmental Quality Committee and was expected to propose regulatory reforms the week he tendered his resignation.
While Mr. Rubio cited personal issues for leaving the legislature—he has a daughter with special needs—another likely concern was the realization that his career and clout in Sacramento were limited by who he was and where he came from. Unlike his coastal counterparts, Mr. Rubio supported exploiting the rich hydrocarbon and shale deposits that underlie his Valley district.
The oil industry, he told a local TV station in February, shared his view "that we need to provide an opportunity for people to go to work and provide for their families"—a statement that borders on heresy in California's Democratic Party.
After delivering pro forma eulogies for Mr. Rubio, Democrats in Sacramento chose Kern County supervisor Leticia Perez to run for his vacated seat. They figured that a young Latina with a background as a public defender would have no trouble winning in a gerrymandered district that was 60% Hispanic and in which Democrats boasted a 22-point registration advantage. In 2010, Mr. Rubio won the seat by a 21-point margin.
Meanwhile, local farmers and businesses recruited the 47-year-old Mr. Vidak, a third-generation Valley farmer who narrowly lost his challenge to Democratic Rep. Jim Costa in 2010, to run on the Republican ticket. The white, middle-aged man appeared to come straight from the California GOP's central casting, but Mr. Vidak is more salt-of-the-earth than many of his new compatriots in Sacramento.

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