In California’s primary, suspense lies in down-ballot races

Gov. Gavin Newsom has barely bothered to campaign for re-election ahead of the June 7 primary. US Senator Alex Padilla, whom Newsom appointed less than two years ago, is expected to pull through despite never being elected to his post.

Given the lack of excitement at California’s marquee races, voters’ biggest challenge may be mustering up enough to cast ballots to decide other contests that could affect the balance of power in Congress and the future of state criminal justice policy.

After Newsom fought back a recall, the gubernatorial election “seems like an afterthought,” Republican policy adviser Kevin Spillane said.

“There are some very interesting national down-ballot races. But in In general, from a statewide perspective, there’s not much for voters to get excited about,” Spillane said before early in-person voting began across much of the state on Saturday. “There are a few interesting races. They are probably of most interest to political insiders than to the average voter.”

The low-intensity sentiment threatens to stifle turnout and reduce the June electorate to habitual voters and hard-core partisans, an outcome that has traditionally favored Republicans. However, that could be offset by the contentious race for mayor of Los Angeles, a contest that eclipses everything else on the ballot. Los Angeles is home to 1 in 10 registered voters in the state, the overwhelming majority of whom are Democrats.

Low turnout would be in stark contrast to California officials mailing a ballot to every 22 million voters with an active registration. Those ballots could go largely unopened by voters who participate more frequently in presidential election cycles.

Among the more intriguing twists in statewide races is the emergence of candidates who eschew affiliation with any political party, including a front-runner for California’s Attorney General.

Sacramento Dist. atty Anne Marie Schubert, a career prosecutor who dropped her GOP registration and switched to no party preference in 2018, hopes to defy the long odds that independent candidates traditionally face and finish in the top two in the primaries. If successful, Schubert would face Atty in November. Gen. Rob Bonta, another Newsom officer known for his liberal stance on the criminal justice system.

A pesky independent has also emerged among the 25 little-known challengers trying to unseat Newsom. Bay Area energy and homelessness activist Michael Shellenberger blames Newsom and California’s Democratic leaders for a host of state ills, including the homeless crisis, rising violent crime and skyrocketing real estate prices.

“If Anne Marie Schubert or Michael Shellenberger actually make it into the top two, then these races will be very exciting,” said Spillane. “You would see a lot of action.”

All but one of the statewide contests have incumbent Democrats running for re-election who are expected to beat their challengers in the primary and win re-election in November.

“The power of incumbents has never waned, and especially when it’s an election that people don’t pay much attention to, there will always be a lot of visibility and experience on the job,” said Kim Nalder, a political scientist at Sacramento State University. “I think for the US Senate race that will definitely be the case.”

FOR RECORDING: An earlier version of this article quoted a former California GOP chairman as saying the last time a state Democratic officer lost a re-election bid was in 1976. A Democratic lieutenant governor lost to a Republican in 1978.

Republicans have a chance to end a losing streak — they haven’t won a statewide election since 2006, the year Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won re-election and Steve Poizner became insurance commissioner. Republican Lanhee Chen, a public policy expert who teaches at Stanford University, is among the top contenders for the state controller post, a seat being vacated by Democrat Betty Yee, who was fired.

If Chen survives the primary and advances to November’s general election, it would be one of the few bright spots for California Republicans, who watch wistfully as their GOP brethren prevail in many of the nation’s most important races, including those supporting the Republicans could put total control over Congress.

Indeed, Californians as a whole have largely been sidelined from the political drama and spotlight of this year’s midterm elections.

Voters in states like Georgia, Florida and Pennsylvania have faced a barrage of political ads – most of them negative – for Senate, governor and congressional elections, but nothing like this is happening in most of California. That’s partly because left-leaning California has been spared the GOP’s intraparty war between candidates blessed by Donald Trump and Republicans who distance themselves from the former president’s untruths and bombast.

Still, California could have some leverage – albeit small – in deciding which party controls the House of Representatives, said Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic strategist and editor of the bipartisan California Target Book.

“If things get tight nationally, yes, California can prove to be a game changer. But if it’s an obliteration for the Democrats … the House of Representatives will be in Republican hands regardless of what happens in California,” he said. “Under these circumstances, under the scenario of the map being wiped out, how big is the Republican majority?”

Because this is the first election since the redrawing of congressional district boundaries, which occurs every 10 years after the census, winners in some of California’s 52 congressional elections could surprise.

For some officers who have been drawn into narrower precincts — GOP Reps. Michelle Steel of Seal Beach and David Valadao of Hanford, and Democratic Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine — the top two voters in the June 7 primary appear set. The actual competitions, which are expected to draw national attention and spend millions of dollars, will take place in the fall.

But in other competitions, the primary will determine who the incumbents face in November.

Democrats Christy Smith, a former congressman, and John Quaye Quartey, a combat veteran, are fighting to take on Republican Congressman Mike Garcia in northern Los Angeles County. Garcia’s district is considered one of the top Democratic intake opportunities nationwide — it now has a 12 percentage point advantage in Democratic voter registration.

Garcia has twice defeated Smith, most recently by 333 votes in 2020. Quartey has never held elected office but has raised about as much money as Smith.

In some of these races, politicians try to uplift the rival they see as the weakest.

Democratic Rep. Mike Levin of San Juan Capistrano, who is running for re-election in Orange and San Diego counties, where the Democratic registration advantage is 2 points, sends Republican voter emails demonstrating Oceanside City Councilman Christopher Rodriguez’s opposition to abortion rights point out.

The leaflets also question the anti-abortion advocates of Brian Maryott, the former mayor of San Juan Capistrano, who partially self-funded his campaign and had the support of the state GOP. Another prominent Republican in the running, Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, is not mentioned.

La Habra’s GOP Rep. Young Kim is running in a new district that’s more comfortably Republican than her current one. However, 4 out of 5 voters in the district would be new voters for her. She aggressively campaigns against Mission Viejo City Councilman Greg Raths — a Republican who has a tiny fraction of her war chest. The move suggests Kim’s position is less secure than she might have anticipated.

Paul Mitchell of Polling Data Inc., a for-profit research firm that consults with Democratic campaigns and tracks ballots cast in the recall campaign, said the percentage of eligible California voters registered to vote — 81.7% — is the highest ever the state has seen since the early 1900s, thanks in part to automatic registration when applying for a driver’s license.

Voters also have more opportunities to get involved than they did at the last national election four years ago. 25 of California’s 58 counties have passed the state’s Voter’s Choice Act, an optional system that swaps traditional neighborhood polling locations for multipurpose voting centers. The centers are open 10 days before Election Day and allow for late voter registration. Now that the list includes the state’s most populous regions, most Californians will have plenty of time to attend.

However, the lack of a Premier contest at the top of the ballot is expected to lower turnout. Mitchell expects only about 30% of registered voters will cast their ballots – compared to an 80% turnout in the November 2020 presidential election.

“The problem is the excitement,” Mitchell said. “Do voters think this election is important? Do you think there actually is a gubernatorial race? What percentage of the population can even name someone running against Gavin Newsom? For Republicans, there is no real top of the ticket.”

Times Sacramento bureau chief John Myers contributed to this report. In California’s primary, suspense lies in down-ballot races

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