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State Senate race could pit ousted Assemblyman against the county supervisor who accused him of sexual aggression

Even with voters and candidates focused on races to be decided Nov. 3, a battle is already underway to see who will replace State Sen. Pat Bates when she’s termed out of her seat in 2022.

And if recent moves play out, the race for the 36th District could feature two high-profile Republicans from Orange County who have clashed over allegations of sexual assault.

Also, at least one other candidate is officially in the race, a fast-rising Democrat who hopes to flip the seat — which represents more than 1 million in people in south Orange County and north San Diego County — from red to blue.

More contenders are expected in coming months, after dust from this year’s election settles and other seats are shuffled around.

How the SD-36 race plays out could hinge on several questions: Will Republican-leaning voters give a second chance to a politician who’s been reprimanded for inappropriate sexual behavior? Can a Democrat’s message resonate enough to land swing voters in a district that’s largely older and white? And how much power does the Republican Party hold in one of the few red pockets of Southern California?

On the GOP side, Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett of Dana Point has had aims for some time on the 36th District seat, which stretches from Mission Viejo in south Orange County down to Encintas in north San Diego County. Bartlett has $33,034 cash in her campaign fund for the race, and she told the Register Thursday that she will likely run for the seat.

She could wind up facing outgoing south county Assemblyman Bill Brough, who has indicated he wants in the race. He’s moved $975 in campaign funds once intended for his current seat to a committee called “Bill Brough State Senate 2022.”

Brough, R-Dana Point, wasn’t expected to face a competitive race this year for a fourth term in the heavily red 73rd Assembly district. Instead, Brough didn’t even make it through the March 3 primary after he was hit by multiple allegations of sexual impropriety.

The first to publicly lodge such an accusation against Brough was Bartlett.

In June 2019, Bartlett and three other women came forward to say Brough made unwanted sexual advances against them in recent years. Bartlett’s accusation dated back to 2011 when the pair served together on the Dana Point City Council.

Brough denies those allegations. He’s insisted that the women accusing him of sexual improprieties are all motivated by politics and that Barlett was trying to eliminate him as a competitor for the SD-36 seat.

But a state office formed to investigate sexual harassment complaints against California legislators concluded in May that at least some of the allegations had merit, stripping Brough of his committee assignments and requiring him to take sexual harassment training.

In August 2019, reports emerged that Brough also is under investigation by the state for his use of campaign funds. That investigation is ongoing.

Brough didn’t respond to requests to discuss whether he intends to mount a campaign for Bates’ Senate seat.

Bartlett said she’d heard Brough had opened an SD-36 committee.

“We held him accountable once before and we will do it again,” she said, when asked about the prospect of running against Brough.

Adam Probolsky, a veteran pollster out of Newport Beach, said he doesn’t think Brough is a serious contender for any office if he’s facing a well-financed opponent.

“While not criminal, his behavior, both inter-personal and in handling campaign funds, is unacceptable,” Probolsky said.

On the Democratic side, Priya Bhat-Patel is the only candidate to officially enter the race and she’s raised more than $51,000 to take over Bates’ seat. Two years ago Patel was elected to the Carlsbad city council, becoming the youngest person, at 31, and the first Indian American to win a council seat in the conservative city.

Bhat-Patel is pitching herself as a problem solver who will work across the aisle on issues such as the public health and economic crises triggered by Covid-19, increasing funding for education and defending the environment from corporate polluters.

While overall voter registration in both Orange and San Diego counties has tilted blue in recent years, SD-36 remains narrowly red. Republicans are 36.5% of registered voters in the district vs. 33.8% Democrats, for a GOP advantage of 15,378 voters.

When asked what makes her confident she can flip the district in 2022, Bhat-Patel pointed to Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano. Levin won his seat in 2018 even though his congressional district, which overlaps with SD-36, was still red. Bhat-Patel’s campaign for Carlsbad City Council also drew support from Republicans.

“Voters want someone who is going to have the right priorities and be on their side,” Bhat-Patel said. “With national, and local, Republican elected officials afraid to stand up to the shameless self-interest of this president and his practice of governing by insult, everyday Republicans are seeing that Democrats put people first.”

Two years from now, SD-36 is likely to be very much in play for Democrats, according to Probolsky. That’s especially true if Trump remains in office, he said, since the president isn’t popular with a majority of Southern Californians and has helped turn local voter registration more blue.

Bates has said she plans to remain in politics after her term ends. She’s considering a run for Bartlett’s county supervisor seat — a seat she used to hold. And she has a committee open to run for secretary of state in 2022.

Source: Orange County Register

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