By JULIET WILLIAMS Associated Press
Posted: 11/04/2012 08:57:26 PM PST
Updated: 11/04/2012 09:07:40 PM PST

SACRAMENTO, Calif.—Tuesday’s general election will be a super-charged affair compared to California’s sleepy primary in June, when less than a third of registered voters bothered to cast a ballot.

This time, Democrats are angling for even greater control of the state Legislature, both major parties are spending record amounts in newly competitive congressional districts, and the philosophical divide over the role of government and taxes is the backstory to several hotly contested ballot propositions.

Even with California on the sidelines of the presidential race, interest is running high, with a record 18.2 million Californians registered to vote.

The stakes are highest for Gov. Jerry Brown, who will have his next two years in office largely defined by the outcome of Proposition 30, his initiative to raise the sales tax and income taxes on high-income earners to help close the state budget deficit.

He and his union supporters are making a last-ditch appeal to undecided voters, but the growing prevalence of mail-in ballots means an estimated 3.5 million voters already have cast their votes.

Spending has been astronomical in this election cycle, partly a reflection of California’s new independent process for drawing legislative and congressional districts, and partly because the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowed unlimited spending from corporations, unions and the wealthy as long as it was not directed by a candidate.

More than $350 million has poured in for and against the 10 ballot initiatives and one referendum, much of it from a handful of ultra-rich donors and major corporations.

Three of the propositions deal with taxes, one asks voters to abolish the death penalty, another would modify the state’s Three Strikes law for repeat felon and an initiative with national implications would require labeling of genetically modified foods.

One initiative drawing some of the most money and advertising is Proposition 32, which is being pushed by corporate interests and is designed to prohibit unions from raising money for political purposes through paycheck deductions. It follows prolonged fights over the role of public employee unions in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere in recent years.

Roughly a dozen of California’s 53 congressional seats are up for grabs, making it the most competitive House landscape in the nation. Outside groups and independent super PACs have spent more than $51 million on those races to date.

It’s the first time in decades the state’s congressional districts are in play, thanks to an independent panel established by voters that redrew the state’s political boundaries. Another political reform in full effect for the first time this year, the top-two primary system, created a number of runoffs between candidates from the same party.

That includes a congressional race in the San Fernando Valley that is as negative—and perhaps more so—than any Democrat vs. Republican race in the state. Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, both incumbent Democrats, nearly had a physical confrontation during one debate this fall, when Sherman grabbed the older and smaller Berman around the shoulder and shouted, “You want to get into this?”

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