By Michael D. Evans
(Editor’s note: The content below was prepared before the certification of the California primary election scheduled for July 5. Although electoral outcomes are unlikely to change, some of the supporting data might change.)
All indications were that the California Primary Election in 2018 would see a significant increase in voter turnout—particularly among progressives—relative to the previous comparable election of 2014. Unlike four years ago, we had
- an open and competitive governor’s race on the ballot;
- a U.S. Senate race on the ballot;
- the Donald Trump factor, which has been a driving force for special and primary elections throughout the country over the past year, and his rhetoric and policies that have been particularly punitive to California; and
- grassroots organizing efforts from Democrats, progressive groups and resistance groups over the past year the likes of which are unprecedented leading into a midterm cycle.
Statewide, there was an increase in voter turnout of about nine percentage points for the primary election, whereas in Fresno County turnout improved from 26.2% in 2014 to 31.0% in 2018. However, a deeper dive into the numbers, courtesy of electoral data analyst James Williams, shows that statewide 25.0% of registered Democrats voted, along with 30.9% of registered Republicans and 17.3% of those registered No Party Preference (or anything else). Democratic registration numbers are significantly higher than those of Republicans statewide, so the election results were still positive for Democrats, but the statistics clearly show that the enthusiasm, such as it was, existed among Republican voters.
The breakdown by age group, also analyzed by Williams, is even more revealing. Those ages 18–34 are 24% of registered voters but had a primary participation rate of only 9%; those 35–49 are 23% of registered voters and participated at 13%; those 50–64 are 27% of registered voters and had a participation rate of 29%, but the kicker is the 65+ age group, which accounts for 26% of registered voters but turned out at a rate of 49%. So, the bottom line is that voters 50 and older determined the outcomes of this primary election.
The Fresno County numbers likely reflect the same pattern. Although Democrats have a registration advantage in the county, they do not yet have a turnout advantage. In fact, in only two of the seven races for statewide constitutional offices did the Democratic candidate win in Fresno County.
Fresno County’s turnout of 31.02% was the not the worst in the state but close to it; only the counties of San Bernardino (30%), Los Angeles (28%), Siskiyou (27%), Sonoma (26%), Sonoma (23%) and Lake (16%) were worse. By comparison, the highest turnout counties were Sierra (72%), Inyo (61%) and Amador (59%). Even Fresno’s neighboring counties were much better: Kings (36.8%), Tulare (34.7%), Madera (44.2%) and Kern (32.2%). Madera County’s turnout probably benefited from it being a Voter’s Choice Act county, an experiment in five counties to make voting easier and more accessible.
The most high-profile contest on the Primary Election ballot was the gubernatorial race. The big story in this race is what happened to Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, former mayor of Los Angeles. Earlier in the year, he was closing in on front-runner Democrat Gavin Newsom, former mayor of San Francisco, but Villaraigosa finished a distant third behind Newsom and Republican John H. Cox.
Villaraigosa appears to have made a significant timing miscalculation. Knowing that if the top two were both Democrats, Republicans would need a place to land, he reached out to various Republican and right-wing groups, even getting endorsements from some of them. But that outreach weakened his Democratic support.
Moreover, Trump’s last-minute endorsement of Cox seems to have fired up the Republican troops and shifted some of those who would otherwise have gone to Travis Allen (thought by the base to be the true right-winger—as if there is a discernible difference). As a result, we have a clear choice in November between a progressive with a proven track record and a Trump Party Republican.
For three statewide races, there will be two Democrats running in November because of the top-two primary. (For state and federal races, the top two vote-getters, regardless of percentage, go forward to a runoff in November.)
For lieutenant governor, Eleni Kounalakis got roughly a quarter of the vote and Ed Hernandez got about a fifth. Both candidates have asked the California Democratic Party to approve a “No Endorsement” in their race.
For U.S. Senate, incumbent Dianne Feinstein and former Senate Pro Tem Kevin de Leon will proceed to the November ballot. De Leon is challenging Feinstein from the left, and he outpolled her 54% to 37% in a bid for the California Democratic Party endorsement but fell short of the 60% threshold to get the endorsement. Since learning she would have a primary opponent from within her own party, Feinstein has been visibly positioning herself to the left.
For superintendent of public instruction, Tony Thurmond and Marshall Tuck advance. Although a registered Democrat, Tuck is that in name only and is, in fact, a rabid charter school advocate. Assembly Member Thurmond has the Democratic Party’s endorsement and that of most education unions.
In other races, incumbent Democrats Alex Padilla for secretary of state and Betty Yee for state controller easily advanced to November, along with Democrat Fiona Ma, the current Board of Equalization representative who is vying to replace John Chiang as state treasurer.
One of the more interesting races heading into November could be that for insurance commissioner. Steve Poizner, a Republican turned No Party Preference (aka Independent), won the primary and will advance to November along with Democrat Ricardo Lara, who put forward SB562, the single-payer healthcare legislation. Poizner is considered the “model candidate” for the Schwarzenegger gang that gave us the top-two primary in that he reflects their supposed moderate values.
In perhaps the primary’s most surprising outcome, in the attorney general’s race current Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, a Democrat, finished a distant third. Democrat Xavier Becerra, who was appointed attorney general by Gov. Jerry Brown following Kamala Harris’s election to the U.S. Senate, got almost half the vote and will meet Republican Steven Bailey in November. Jones was popular among the Democratic base, having outpolled Becerra 56% to 42% in the party’s endorsement vote.
California has four Board of Equalization districts, and the Central Valley is in District 1, which the covers the eastern half of the state extending from Siskiyou County to San Bernardino County. Democrat Tom Hallinan, an attorney from Ceres, ran first against three Republicans and will face off against Ted Gaines in November.
In CD4, Jessica Morse bested three fellow Democrats (Regina Bateson, Roza Calderon and Robert Lawton) to win the opportunity to challenge incumbent Republican Tom McClintock one-on-one in November. The primary was contentious among the Democrats, and it might be challenging for Morse to secure all the not-McClintock vote.
In CD16, incumbent Democrat Jim Costa continued his string of close races in midterm cycles. He led his challenger, Elizabeth Heng, by six percentage points. Costa appears to have run a cautious primary race holding back his war chest for the fall campaign. Heng is an upstart darling of the radical right whose parents are small business owners.
In CD21, we got a preview of the November race. With only two candidates on the ballot, incumbent Republican David Valadao and Democratic challenger T.J. Cox, we saw that Cox has much ground to cover to be competitive in November. A late entrant to the race after switching from CD10, where he had been running for a year or so, Cox had insufficient time to establish name recognition in CD21 or to overcome the appearance of shenanigans by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in asking Emilio Huerta to leave the race.
In CD22, Democrat Andrew Janz, the assistant district attorney who has long been the leading challenger to incumbent Republican Devin Nunes, easily outdistanced the four other rivals. Most important, the not-Nunes vote was close to 45%. With national attention and an unprecedented level of fund-raising for a Democrat in the district, Janz should be competitive if he solidifies Democratic support, finds a message that resonates with independent voters and captures the anti-Nunes sentiment among rational Republican voters. Nunes, a prime example of the Peter Principle (rising to one’s level of incompetence), has proven to be a national embarrassment to the district and the Central Valley.
Throughout California, the key takeaway is that there is a Democratic candidate in every Congressional district. Because so many Democrats stepped forward to run this year and given the potential pitfalls of the top-two primary system, there was concern that some targeted districts might have two Republicans advance to November because of Democrats splitting their vote. That did not happen.
Three Senate districts and two Assembly districts cross into Fresno County.
In SD8, Republican Tom Berryhill is terming out. Fresno County Supervisor Andreas Borgeas easily outpaced his two Democratic challengers, Paulina Miranda and Tom Pratt. Even though the district is huge, the bulk of the vote is in Fresno County and Pratt appears to have spent insufficient time here. With Borgeas heavily favored to win in November, speculation will focus on his soon-to-be-vacated supervisorial seat and the candidates for the special election to fill that opening.
In SD12, current Democratic Assembly Member Anna Caballero ran well ahead of Republicans Rob Poythress, who will advance to November, and Johnny Tacherra, who many thought would do better because of name recognition gained from his previous attempts at public office. Combined with the vote of Democrat Daniel Parra, Caballero seems well-positioned for a strong run in November.
In SD14, incumbent Republican Andy Vidak topped three Democrats. Melissa Hurtado, a Sanger City Council member, edged out Abigail Solis, a School Board member in Earlimart, and Ruben Macareno, a perennial candidate. With Josh Newman being recalled in Orange County, this Senate seat will almost certainly be a targeted race by the Democratic Senate Leadership.
In AD23, equity-pay advocate Aileen Rizo, a Democrat, got 35% of the vote against incumbent Republican Jim Patterson. Another late entry, her campaign is still coming together. But this was a decent primary showing in a one-on-one race, and she should be able to solidify her campaign heading into the fall.
In AD31, incumbent Democrat Joaquin Arambula will face Republican challenger Lupe Espinoza in November.
Countywide, many races were uncontested with Jim Yovino (superintendent of schools), Margaret Mims (sheriff-coroner-public administrator), Paul Dictos (assessor-recorder) and Lisa Smittcamp (district attorney) being reelected. County Clerk-Registrar of Voters Brandi Orth defeated Adrian Rivera. The one countywide race unresolved in the June primary is that for auditor-controller/treasurer-tax collector; Oscar J. Garcia and David L. Keyes move on to the November ballot.
For the Board of Supervisors, incumbent Brian Pacheco withstood a spirited challenge from Jose Ornelas, a City Council member in San Joaquin, to be reelected in District 1. Buddy Mendes was reelected in District 4 without opposition.
The only municipality in the county with races on the June primary ballot was Fresno. Four of the seven City Council seats are up for election this year. Although turnout countywide was 31.0%, the drop-off was considerable in the contested City Council races: District 3 (19.9%), District 5 (21.8%) and District 7 (19.8%).
In District 1, Democrat Esmeralda Soria was unopposed and reelected for a second term.
In District 3, Democrat Oliver Baines terms out this year and there was considerable competition with seven candidates—five Democrats, a Republican and a No Party Preference—vying to replace him. Democrat Miguel Arias, currently a State Center Community College District trustee, was the leading vote-getter almost doubling the total of his nearest opponent. Second place was much closer with three candidates—Democrats Tate Hill and Daren Miller and NPP Craig Scharton—within 50 votes of each other. As we went to press, Hill, a senior manager with the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, appeared to have secured the second spot on the November ballot.
In District 5, in what was probably the biggest surprise among the local races, incumbent Democrat Luis Chavez did not win outright in the primary (in city and county races, unlike the state and federal races, any candidate getting 50% plus one vote wins outright in June). Chavez has a slim lead of less than 300 votes over Republican challenger Paula Yang. Democratic challenger Jose Barraza finished third.
In District 7, the seat being vacated because of Republican Clint Olivier terming out, the race for the top two was close between Republican Brian Whelan and Democrat Nelson Esparza, both of whom will advance to the November ballot. Democrat Veva Islas, who had the support of many progressive groups in the county, finished third. With the strong joint showing of Esparza and Islas, Esparza should be able to return this seat in a heavily Democratic district to a Democrat.
Michael D. Evans is a political activist, editor and writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.