11:33 PM PDT on Thursday, October 14, 2010

By JIM MILLER
Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO – After the 2008 election, it looked as if Republicans would have to play defense in some party-held Assembly seats in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Democrat Barack Obama had won or nearly won in three of the districts. Under-funded Democratic candidates had polled strongly. Republican registration had dropped steadily over the past decade.

Today, GOP Assembly candidates in the Inland area are not quite proclaiming victory on Nov. 2. But the political environment is much different than two years ago, their Democratic opponents have little money, and there is no indication that the party or its allies plan to get involved locally.

Democrats have 51 seats in the Assembly, only three shy of getting a two-thirds majority needed to pass a budget without GOP votes. But Democrats have seats to defend and there are more likely pickup prospects elsewhere.

“If no money goes into the Democrats in those races, then they’re going to be safe Republican,” said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book, which evaluates political campaigns.

But Hoffenblum offered a caveat: “Both political party brands are negative. There are a lot of voters out there who don’t like either party. With an electorate like this, there’s bound to be a surprise” in the state next month.

Assembly members Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley, Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore, and Wilmer Amina Carter, D-Rialto, are running for their third and final two-year terms.

Carter is expected to defeat Republican Jeane Ensley, of Rialto, in the 62nd Assembly District, a Democratic-heavy outpost. The same goes for Jeffries in his 66th Assembly District race against Democrat Douglas Dye of Temecula, a retired engineer.

Cook’s 65th Assembly District became a question mark after 2008.

In 2008, Cook got only 53 percent of the vote and lost in the district’s Riverside County portion despite heavily outspending his Democratic opponent, Carl Wood, of Cherry Valley.

Wood quickly sought a rematch. Once again, though, Wood has much less money on hand than Cook.

Assembly members Brian Nestande, R-Palm Desert, and Jeff Miller, R-Corona, seek second terms.

Nestande easily defeated a tea party-aligned candidate in the June 8 primary. But unlike in November 2008, when Nestande ran unopposed, he has competition.

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