10:00 PM PST on Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sacramento Bureau

SACRAMENTO – Riverside County’s 37th Senate District has been safe Republican ground for almost all of its existence.

Then came 2008. Barack Obama carried the district, one of four GOP-held Senate seats where the Democratic presidential ticket prevailed.

Much of the attention on the upcoming special election in the 37th has been on the race between Republican candidates Bill Emmerson, a state Assemblyman, and Russ Bogh, a former lawmaker.

But Inland Democrats say they have a shot at the seat, which begins in Corona, wraps around Riverside, and stretches to the Arizona border.

“I think the right Democrat could win it,” said Palm Springs school board member Justin Blake, one of two Democrats running for the seat to date. Beaumont computer analyst Arthur Guerrero, who ran in 2008, is the other.

Riverside County Democratic Party chairwoman Betty McMillion noted the district’s 6-percentage-point drop in GOP registration, to 42 percent, and a 6-percentage-point increase in independent voters, to 17 percent, since 2002.

The California Target Book, which evaluates political races, estimates that the district’s Latino registration has increased to almost 25 percent. Latino voters usually favor Democrats in California.

Democrat Pat Johansen ran for the 37th in 2004, when Republican registration was 47.5 percent. Now she is managing Blake’s campaign. “It’s a very appealing district,” she said.

The election is to replace Republican John Benoit, who vacated the seat to join the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. A primary election is April 13, and the main election is June 8.

It comes as state Senate Democrats try to increase their ranks from 25 to 27, the two-thirds margin needed to pass tax, budget and some other legislation.

So far, Democrats have their attention elsewhere: the Central Valley’s 12th Senate District, which Obama carried by 18 percentage points, and the Central Coast’s 15th Senate District, which Obama won by 20.

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