Under the radar: Another view of Election Night

Election Night came and went this week with the headlines most political observers expected: Whitman vs. Brown; Fiorina vs. Boxer. But there were some nail-biters in legislative races and a couple of surprises in statewide contests that caught some of the so-called experts flat-footed.

The biggest oops of the night goes to the California Republican Party, which sent out a statement from Chairman Ron Nehring congratulating Assemblyman Mike Villines (R-Clovis) on his victory in the primary for insurance commissioner.

“Mike Villines has run through the political gauntlet many times and has always emerged with class and integrity,” the release stated.  “As Republican Assembly Leader, he’s been a tireless champion for consumer rights and responsible government and everyone in the CRP knows Mike will fight to stop job-killing regulations from destroying California’s economy.”

They could hardly be faulted – Villines faced what was thought to be token opposition from little known Brian Fitzgerald, an attorney for the state department of insurance.

But Fitzgerald pulled off the upset of the night, eeking out a victory over Villines despite having never held public office and not running much of a formal campaign.

Here’s a little lesson from that race: In down-ticket races, ballot designation matters. Fitzgerald was billed as the insurance “department’s enforcement attorney.” Villines was described as “Businessman/State Assemblyman.” In this anti-incumbent year, and in a race where neither candidate had much of a presence, Villines fell victim to the “throw-the-bums-out” fervor. Some may suggest that Villines was deliberately punished by GOP voters angry at the former Assembly GOP leader’s vote for tax increases last year, but a quick look at Abel Maldonado’s victory over Sam Aanestad in the lieutenant governor’s primary helps put that myth to rest.

Campaign strategists for state superintendent candidate Larry Aceves believe ballot designation also played a factor in that race. The conventional wisdom was that the race would be a battle between two state lawmakers – Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, and Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch. Torlakson was backed by the teachers’ unions. Romero had the support of charter school boosters Edvoice. But Aceves had something the others didn’t – a good ballot designation. Aceves was listed as a “retired school superintendent,”while Romero was listed as “Educator/Senator.”

Aceves’ race also foreshadows what the world must look like if Proposition 14 withstands the expected legal challenges.

The fundamental change to the state’s primary system would, in effect, make all district and statewide races look like the superintendent’s race. That race is already non-partisan, and the top-two vote getters advance to a November run-off. With two Democrats getting the big special interest money, Aceves and his supporters had room to run on the right. While the Association of California School Administrators spent far less than either Edvoice or the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers  on the race, they spent it buying up Republican slate cards and targeting voters in the Central Valley and in Republican districts.

Nobody knows for sure how the next round of primary elections will look with the new primary rules on the books. But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was among those celebrating Wednesday.

“I think [the voters’] message was loud and clear to Sacramento,” Schwarzenegger said Wednesday. “I think they wanted to change the dysfunctional political system and get rid of the paralysis and the partisan bickering that’s going on in Sacramento.”

We know it’s not really a fair comparison, since the new primary rules will give voters more freedom in the voting booth and will likely change campaign strategy. But just for kicks, we decided to see what Tuesday would have looked like if the top-two vote-getters in each race, regardless of party, were the ones advancing to the November primary.

In the Senate, perhaps one of Tuesday’s 20 races would have been affected by the new law, the 22nd District primary, won by Assemblyman Kevin de Leon. There was no Republican primary in that district. The top vote-getters in all 20 Senate races Tuesday included one Democrat and one Republican, except in the 22nd, Same goes for the statewide races. Democrat Kamala Harris received about 20,000 more votes than GOP runner-up John Eastman. But Harris had a six-way primary field to contend with — something that is sure to be frowned upon by party elders with the new primary rules in effect.

It is the Assembly that would appear to be most dramatically impacted by the passage of Proposition 14. Seven of the 80 November contests would be different if the rules were in effect Tuesday, as would three congressional districts and the Senate 22nd — a total of 11 seats.

In the 9th Assembly District, the still-too-close-to-call battle between Sacramento Councilman Kevin McCarty and County Supervisor Roger Dickinson would be moot. Both Democrats would advance to the runoff.

In AD 20, the labor vs. business proxy war featuring Garrett Yee and Bob Wieckowski would be played out in the fall. One would imagine that many of the 8,100 voters who cast Republican ballots in that race might favor the business-backed Yee, who lost the race narrowly on Election Day.

Similar battles between moderates and liberals would be seen in the Salinas-area 28th District, the 47th District now held by Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, and the South Gate-area district being vacated by Hector De La Torre, AD 50. In all three cases, the more liberal Democrat won on Election Day. But under Proposition 14, instead of being all but assured victory in November, their more moderate challengers would now be seen as front-runners in the head-to-head match-up.

Only one Republican seat – the 25th Assembly District in the Central Valley – would have been impacted by the change. Instead of facing token Democratic opposition in November, top vote-getter Kristin Olson would face a rematch with Bill Conrad in November.

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