What to Watch for on Election Night as The Results Come In

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Will Antonio Villaraigosa (center) face fellow Democrat Gavin Newsom (right) in November? Photo by Chris Stone

By Ben Christopher | CALmatters

There are 53 congressional races. Another 101 open seats in the California Legislature. Add to that heated statewide contests for offices that you’re familiar with (governor, attorney general) and a few that you might not be (treasurer, controller, board of equalization). Oh, don’t forget the propositions.

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There’s a lot to keep track of on the California ballot. Here are eight questions to keep in mind as you cast your vote and wait for the results to trickle in.

Who’s on Second in The Governor’s Race?

No fewer than 27 candidates hope to replace Gov. Jerry Brown. California’s top two electoral system, which only allows the first and second place winners to move onto the general election, regardless of political party, means that all but 25 will soon be heading home.

The polls are in strong agreement that Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is all but certain to grab one of those top two spots. The big question is who will come second.

The leading contenders are Republican John Cox, a lawyer and accountant from the San Diego area, and Antonio Villaraigosa, the Democratic former mayor of Los Angeles, according to most surveys. Republican Assemblyman Travis Allen of Huntington Beach and two Democrats, state Treasurer John Chiang, and Delaine Eastin, the former superintendent of public instruction, are all hoping those poll are spectacularly wrong.

If Cox makes it past this primary, California’s gubernatorial race will assume a familiar partisan pattern: Democrat versus Republican. Cox isn’t particularly well known and has been endorsed by President Trump, so that contest will be Newsom’s to lose in blue California. But if Villaraigosa edges out Cox, the state will have its first ever intraparty gubernatorial general election.. Many Democrats believe that will benefit the party as a whole—and help capture GOP-held congressional seats key to the Dems taking control of the House—by discouraging Republican turnout in November. Team Newsom begs to differ.

Who Will Be Shutout in Orange County?

California’s top-two system can punish a party with too many candidates in one race. In Orange County, Democrats face exactly that problem, where a bevy of political newbies have crowded into some of the state’s most competitive races and risk splitting the left-of-center vote, leaving the first and second spots to Republicans.

The threat is most acute in the contests to replace Rep. Darrell Issa in Vista and Rep. Ed Royce in Fullerton (both are retiring) and in the seat held by Dana Rohrabacher in Huntington Beach. All three are former Republican bastions that have trended purple in recent years.

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Most political scientists say such shutout scenarios are rare in competitive districts, but Democrats don’t have much wiggle room. Nationally, they are hoping to flip at least 23 seats to take back control of the House. Democratic operatives have seen the possibility of a top-two shut-out coming for months, but aside from offering endorsements, buying advertisements, and good old-fashioned browbeating, there isn’t much the party can do.

Does Outside Money Matter?

California elections are always expensive. But spending from independent expenditure groups, who can spend as much money as they like so long as they don’t directly coordinate with political campaigns, have played a significant role this year. Will it make a difference?

In the race for governor, a handful of millionaires have bet big on Villaraigosa, spending over $20 million in support his campaign. The former mayor’s position on education policy seems to be a big draw. Villaraigosa is an avid charter school supporter and has advocated for changes to tenure rules for public school teachers. But for all that money, Villaraigosa trails Cox in most recent polls.

Outside cash is also pouring into races that carry more symbolic weight than real power.

Eleni Kounalakis, the former ambassador to Hungary who has won some high profile endorsements in her campaign to become the next lieutenant governor, has also benefited from some $5 million in independent spending from Angelo K. Tsakopoulos, a Sacramento developer who happens to be her father.

And in the race to become the next superintendent of public instruction, which administers public school policy but typically doesn’t set it, over $7 million has been spent in support of Marshall Tuck, much of it from charter school advocates. Roughly $3 million has boosted the candidacy of his chief opponent, Assemblyman Tony Thurmond from Richmond, who is backed by the teachers union and other public employee unions.

Turnout: Will This Time Be Different?

In non-presidential primary elections (like this one), the electorate tends to be older, richer, and whiter than the state as a whole.

Despite making up California’s largest single ethnic group, Latino voters are particularly underrepresented at the ballot box. In June of 2014, only 13.3 percent of registered Latino voters cast a ballot, compared to 25 percent of voters statewide.

This year could be different. It’s the first state referendum on President Trump, whose immigration policies in particular have galvanized many Latino voters. And the election features high-profile Latino candidates running for almost every statewide office. The Villaraigosa campaign has spent much of this year touring around Los Angeles and the Central Valley, hoping to engage a population that has historically not turned out.

Other Latinos candidates seeking statewide office include state Sen. Kevin de León who is running for U.S. Senate, acting Attorney General, Xavier Becerra, state Sen. Ed Hernandez who is running for lieutenant governor, and Secretary of State Alex Padilla.

Is This Another Year of The Woman?

A record number of women are running for Congress this year, inspired in part by the Women’s Marches and the #MeToo movement. Nearly 60 are running in California, according to the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers University. This election will be the first test of whether the surge in enthusiasm that has convinced so many women to run will also motivate voters.

In the lieutenant governor’s race, Eleni Kounalakis, Lidya Ortega, or Gayle McLaughlin would be the first women to be elected to that position. Ditto for Delaine Eastin and Amanda Renteria if either were to overcome the long odds against them in male-dominated field of candidates for governor. And in both of the state’s fiscal offices, two Democratic women—treasurer hopeful, Fiona Ma, and incumbent controller, Betty Ye—are the candidates to beat.

Voters in southeast Los Angeles will have an opportunity to weigh in more directly on #MeToo. Democrat Tony Mendoza, who resigned from the state Senate amid allegations that he sexually harassed his staffers, is running for his old seat. In fact he’s running twice—both to serve as his own temporary replacement until November and to serve out the next full term. In an overlapping state Assembly district, Cristina Garcia, who has also been accused of sexual harassment, is running for re-election too.

How Powerful Is The Republican Brand?

A California Republican hasn’t won statewide office since 2006. In that year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won his re-election bid and Steve Poizner became the state’s insurance commissioner.

This year, Schwarzenegger said he won’t be voting for either of the leading Republicans in the governor’s race, and Poizner is running again for his old seat—only this time, as a political independent. If Poizner makes it into the general election, that will put him in the running to become the first candidate to win statewide office as a “no party preference” candidate. It also may send a message to future center-right candidates that if they want to win in California, they’ll have to do it without an “R” after their name.

Is This Goodbye, Sen. Newman?

Last year, California Democrats (and one Republican) passed a transportation funding bill that raised the state’s gas tax for the first time since 1994. As soon as the bill was signed into law, Republicans organized an effort to recall state Sen. Josh Newman. Newman wasn’t the author of the bill, but he does represent a purple district in north Orange County, which he won in 2016 by a fraction of a percentage point.

The recall vote, which coincides with the primary election is more than just an Orange County phenomenon. Conservative activists hope to put a repeal of the gas tax increase on the November election ballot and Newman’s fate could be a test of how receptive voter will be to that effort. Plus, if Newman is successfully booted from office, that could inspire activists on both sides of the political spectrum to evoke the recall option more in the future to punish their ideological rivals


CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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