Low Turnout Necessitates November Turnaround

Low Turnout Necessitates November Turnaround
Image of the historic Fresno water tower by Wayne Hsieh via Flickr Creative Commons

By Michael D. Evans

With no excitement in most of the statewide races and no controversial ballot measures, there was little to drive turnout for the June 3 Primary Election other than the efforts of individual campaigns. And that’s a tall task for any campaign in a primary election.

As a result, the low turnout was the main attribute of the election. In Fresno County, the turnout was 26.2% countywide. The effect of weak turnout was seen most clearly in the Congressional District 21 race, where the turnout in the Fresno County portion of the district was 26.3% but was only 14.5% in Kern County (the Democratic areas of the district) as opposed to a much more favorable 32.0% in Kings County and 32.1% in Tulare County (the Republican areas of the district).

Turnout was “typical in an off-year election,” said Rich McIntyre, executive director of Leadership and Jobs for a New Economy, but was “compounded by voter apathy and a largely failed attempt to rally ethnic bases.”

Another troubling trend was Republicans backing a “registered Democrat” in districts where the demographics make it difficult for a Republican to win. We first saw this strategy in 2012, when Paul Caprioglio was elected to the Fresno City Council with Republican and developer support, and it is being repeated this cycle with Fresno County Board of Supervisors District 1 candidate Brian Pacheco and Fresno City Council District 1 candidate Cary Catalano. With voter suppression more difficult to institutionalize in California than in other states, this approach appears to have become a right-wing strategy of choice.

We saw some dirty tricks in the primary, but not a lot. They will no doubt accelerate exponentially in the General Election. Nevertheless, there were some shenanigans. In Congressional District 21, the incumbent David Valadao (R–Hanford) tried to convince voters that Democratic challenger Amanda Renteria, the stronger of his two primary opponents, was somehow ripping off the government by having accepted her salary as a Senate chief of staff. How duplicitous: Valadao receives such a government salary himself and is running to continue receiving it; furthermore, he is a recipient of taxpayer-funded subsidies for his dairy farm.

In a scenario that has become all too common, a slate mailer was used to deceive voters by City Council District 7 candidate Clint Olivier, who wanted voters to think he was a Democrat. In a district that is heavily Democratic and voted 65% against Measure G, Olivier, who championed the privatization of residential waste workers and consistently votes with the Republicans on the City Council, desperately needed voters to be so deceived.

On a positive note, we saw numerous grassroots efforts working to help campaigns and drive turnout. The efforts of the usual players—organized labor and the Democratic Party—were supplemented by such entities as the Fresno Partnership, a coalition of various groups that organized candidate forums, trained candidates and provided campaign guidance; the Communities for a New California Education Fund in partnership with California Calls, which conducted a voter engagement program that reached almost 10,000 voters; and the Central Valley Progressive PAC, from which members committed to multiple volunteer shifts.

“Progressive support, particularly the Fresno Partnership, was huge,” notes City Council District 7 candidate Mike Wells. “[Ours] would not have been a serious campaign without the early and consistent support of the Partnership.”


There were few surprises in the statewide races. The incumbents and/or the endorsed Democratic candidates are well positioned for their November challenges. Incumbent Jerry Brown easily led the pack of candidates for governor. That the Republicans went with Neel Kashkari over the more radical right-winger Tim Donnelly for governor probably reflects that the Tea Party might control the Republican Party but not necessarily Republican voters in California.

One surprise was in the controller’s race with the success in the early returns of David Evans (no relation to the author of this article), apparently a right-wing Republican alternative to Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin. For a time, it appeared that there might be two Republicans moving onto the November election in that race. However, when the late returns started coming in, Democrats Betty Yee and John Perez put considerable distance between themselves and Evans. At the time of this writing, Yee was slightly ahead of Perez but with the count not yet complete. Swearengin apparently failed to consolidate Republican support and left an opening for Evans to suppress her vote from the right wing of her party.

The possibility that Swearengin and Evans could have been the final two candidates in November reflects one of the many problems with the open primary system. We could have had two Republican candidates, and none from any other party, on the November ballot in a state where fewer than 30% of the registered voters are Republican.

U.S. Congress

As expected, incumbent Tom McClintock (R–Elk Grove) will face Art Moore, a fellow Republican, for Congressional District 4 in November. There was no Democrat in this race. Nothing suggests any significant roadblock to a McClintock victory in November.

In District 16, incumbent Jim Costa (D–Fresno) will square off against Republican Johnny Tacherra in November. Tacherra finished ahead of Steve Crass, who likely would have been the stronger Republican opponent against Costa. Turnout in the Fresno County portion of the district was substantially worse than the county average at only 19.8%.

In District 21, Renteria finished ahead of John Hernandez in what was essentially a Democratic primary, and she will challenge Valadao in November. Despite favorable voter registration and demographics for Democrats, the normal turnout in this district favors a Republican. Therefore, the race will be an uphill battle but with unified support and a coordinated campaign effort with overlapping campaigns, Renteria can prevail.

The primary saw a couple of local progressive groups inexplicably treating Hernandez like the second coming of liberal author and 2012 Congressional candidate Norman Solomon even though Hernandez’s track record didn’t seem to warrant such affection. As for the Renteria campaign, media could have started earlier, given her initial lack of name recognition, and there are concerns that the campaign needs to be more reflective of the district’s residents.

For District 22, Democrat Suzanna “Sam” Aguilera-Marrero finished well ahead of Devin Nunes’ (R–Tulare) Tea Party challenger, John Catalano, and will move onto November. In this Republican-heavy district, Aguilera-Marrero will need strong turnout from the Democratic base, substantial support from independents and a strategy to reach moderate Republican women.

State Legislature

The State Senate elections in Fresno County were essentially a poll. With one Democrat and one incumbent Republican in each race, all move onto November.

Senate District 8: Tom Berryhill (R–Twain Harte) versus Paulina Miranda (D)

Senate District 12: Anthony Cannella (R–Ceres) versus Shawn Bagley (D)

Senate District 14: Andy Vidak (R–Hanford) versus Luis Chavez (D)

For the State Assembly, neither Henry T. Perea (D–Fresno; District 31) nor Jim Patterson (R–Fresno; District 23) had a challenger.


The most venomous race in Fresno County was for District Attorney. Lisa Sondergaard-Smittcamp and incumbent Elizabeth Egan spent liberally and criticized each other incessantly as the campaigns got increasingly heated and negative as Election Day got closer. Smittcamp won in a landslide with almost 60% of the vote. This could well be a case of “beware what you wish for” for progressives because Smittcamp, like Egan an extremely well-to-do and well-connected Republican, is unlikely to be substantively different than Egan.

The election for Superior Court Judge No. 15 will proceed to November as Lisa Gamoian ran first and Rachel Hill placed second. Gamoian had a tough on crime message (read “lock ’em up”), whereas Hill touted her diverse judicial resume and common-sense approach to justice.

Fresno County Board of Supervisors

As expected, in District 1 Blong Xiong and Pacheco survived the June primary and will face each other in November. Pacheco, a registered Democrat, tried to present himself as a Republican during the campaign and had support from a number of big-name Republicans. This approach infuriated Gary Yep, the mayor of Kerman, who considered himself the real Republican in the race. (Indeed, Yep was the only registered Republican on the ballot.) Given the low turnout (22.6%), Yep’s presence on the ballot probably kept Pacheco from winning the race in June. With Pacheco’s conflicted allegiances exposed, Xiong should be in a good position for the November runoff.

In District 4, Republican Buddy Mendes fell short of the 50% needed to win outright in June. Democrat Daniel Parra finished second and should have the support of fellow Democrats Magdalena Gomez and Steve Rapada, and possibly even that of Amandip Singh Gill, an independent, for the November race. Parra parlayed early commitments, primarily from labor and local elected officials, into a firm advantage. Gomez had an aggressive grassroots effort but lacked the funding to get her message widely distributed. With the November focus on Congressional District 21 and Senate District 14, both of which overlap much of this supervisorial district, the turnout should increase substantially in November.

Fresno City Council

In District 1, the top two finishers were Catalano and Esmeralda Soria, which was no surprise. Almost tied, both finished well ahead of the other five candidates, even the well-financed Rama Dawar, an independent. In the absence of a viable Republican candidate, Republicans, developers and other conservatives threw their support behind Catalano. Soria had the support of most labor groups and some progressive groups (some jointly with fellow Democrat Rebeca Rangel). As a largely Democratic district, the outcome of this race is the least likely to be affected by poor turnout in November. Whoever connects and resonates with the most voters should win.

In District 3, incumbent Democrat Oliver Baines easily defeated two challengers: Barbara Hunt and Eddie Rashad. He won outright in the Primary Election.

In District 5, incumbent Democrat Sal Quintero was unopposed and therefore reelected.

In District 7, Democratic challenger Wells had a strong grassroots effort, but the campaign did not jell early enough. With the addition of Vanessa Rhodes as campaign manager about a month out from the election, the campaign shifted into high gear—but it proved to be too late.

“Being a first-time candidate,” said Wells, “fund-raising was slow going, and ultimately we were outspent two to one.”

“If [the Fresno Partnership] had controlled the Wells race from the start,” says McIntyre, “the outcome might have been different.”

Wells improved considerably as a candidate throughout the campaign, and there will be other opportunities for him to serve the community.

Looking Ahead

Sabina González-Eraña, Central Valley regional director for the Communities for a New California Education Fund, says, “Our electorate in Fresno is changing fast, and it’s headed in a progressive direction as more south Fresno voters begin to participate regularly after being silenced for so many years.”

It sounds like a high-decibel echo, but the November election will again be all about turnout—increasing it substantially. Current turnout strategies are insufficient. Tried and true campaign tactics still need to be employed, but they must be augmented with creative new ideas to help candidates better engage with voters. Furthermore, there needs to be some attention to the 26.7% of eligible voters throughout California who are not registered to vote.

The Republicans have unlimited resources at their disposal (there’s even talk of the Koch brothers funding local Republican campaigns), and negative campaign flyers and tactics will dominate the fall cycle. Democrats must have their own hard-hitting pieces, counter every accusation immediately and expose their opponents’ negative and deceptive tactics.

“We need to stop saying things like ‘we have a very conservative electorate in our city’ because it’s not true,” says González. “What we do have are communities that have lost hope in our electoral system, so continuing to win on battles like Measure G is where we need to focus, so we can prove that we can win.”


Michael D. Evans is a political activist, editor and writer. Contact him at evansm@usa.net.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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