The internets are awash in premature postscripts about last night's "all-comers" primary in the California 36th district, a battle to replace longtime Democratic Rep. Jane Harman (who resigned earlier this year). With self-financing Republican businessman Craig Huey currently holding a 206-vote lead over Democratic Secretary of State Debra Bowen for the second and final spot in July's runoff election, there have been no less than two national stories in the "How Huey did it" vein.
First of all, Huey hasn't "done it." At least, not yet. To their credit, both Dave Catanese at Politico and Rachel Weiner at the Washington Post couched it in provisional terms. However, the fact remains that Bowen is still about 50/50 to move right back past Huey and create an all-Democratic runoff.
According to the county registrar's office, just shy of 10,000 votes remain to be counted. Most of these are late arriving vote-by-mail ballots, but a little over 1000 of them are either provisional ballots or damaged ballots. In last night's tabulation of the early absentee ballots, Bowen enjoyed a lead of around 3% over Huey. If that trend holds, it would put her back into the runoff. However, as local state Senator Ted Lieu pointed out via Twitter, if the late-breaking absentees behave as the walk-up vote on Tuesday did, then the likely impact would be an expansion of the Huey lead.
This was the first Congressional test of California's new all-party primary structure, created by the passage of Proposition 14. Under the previous structure, Bowen would certainly be relegated to the sidelines, as she stands nearly 2000 votes behind first-place finisher Janice Hahn in the balloting.
Given that most of the pundit class presumed a Hahn-Bowen runoff, it is instructive to understand what happened yesterday. Contrary to what seems to be the congealing conventional wisdom, it would be a bit ludicrous to call this the result of some kind of conservative resurgence in California. Catanese hints at this in his piece when he says:
It's too early to say conclusively, but even Democrats guess that the current political winds and economic strife motivated a few more conservative voters to turn out than usual. "The numbers did suggest this as a possibility. I just figured Bowen would squeak it out," observed one Democrat involved in the race.
The numbers don't seem to support this hypothesis. Jerry Brown won the 36th district last year with 56% of the vote. Barbara Boxer won by an identical margin. The Democrats combined for 57% of the vote last night, to 41% for the GOP. If there is a "surge" lying within those numbers, it is an awfully marginal one.
So, what did happen? Three things seem to have been instrumental to putting a Republican on the precipice of making this runoff:
- The Democratic side of the primary was a rugged affair: The Democrats, from the get-go, had a legitimate three-way race. The entrance of Marcy Winograd into the race was arguably the biggest blow of the campaign to Bowen, because it ensured that they would be competing for the same votes on the leftward wing of the Democratic primary electorate. While Winograd was a distant fourth place, she did log close to 10% of the vote. Bowen certainly would have received more of the Winograd vote than Hahn (who was seen as the more insiderish/establishment candidate on the Dem side). On top of that, Hahn and Bowen (presumably competing to be the top vote-getter, since that was the presumption) trained their fire on each other. This might have suppressed their votes by a point or two, which was just enough for Huey to sneak in at the wire.
- The GOP side of the primary was anything BUT a rugged affair: Lost in the all the hullabaloo over Huey is the fact that the GOP primary field, once thought to be competitive, wound up being a cast of duds. In the final analysis, Craig Huey essentially had the field to himself. Neither of the other prominent conservatives in the mix (Hermosa Beach city councilman Kit Bobko or Redondo Beach city attorney Mike Webb) were able to raise much money, and the one guy that was able to raise even marginal cash (Redondo Beach Mayor Mike Gin) was far too moderate to inspire GOP base voters. Let's be blunt--a gay, married Republican who doesn't take an axe to the Obama health care bill when asked about it is not going to challenge a self-financing millionaire whose omnipresent yard signs contain the simple boilerplate: "Grow jobs. Spend less." Huey winds up taking more than half of the GOP votes, and with that, just enough votes to be in position to make the runoff.
- Bowen's slow start: Alex Isenstadt over at Politico really nails one of the most under-reported reasons for yesterday's result:
But there were also signs very early on that Hahn was prepared to run a much more energetic campaign that Bowen. Hahn declared her candidacy on the same day then-Democratic Rep. Jane Harman announced she was resigning, and within days Hahn was rolling out endorsements from top labor groups and influential California political players like Sen. Dianne Feinstein – backing that won her with early media attention.
Bowen, in contrast, appeared hesitant.
Speed kills. A lot of Bowen supporters decried the myriad of Hahn endorsements as insider back-scratching, while ignoring that Hahn also got some critical local endorsements from respected progressives, including an early one from the aforementioned Ted Lieu, who had just won the local state Senate seat overwhelmingly months earlier. Bowen, for her part, was conducting what amounted to an "online listening tour", asking supporters to contact her website and tell her whether or not she should run. That gave Hahn a substantial head-start in the campaign, and created a gap that Bowen, despite her enormous reservoir of goodwill in the district and her sterling reputation as the state's elections chief, could not close.
Of course, Bowen may well get a reprieve here as the absentees and provisional get counted. One would hope so. In all probability, a Hahn-Huey general election would be a fairly staid affair. Huey has a big checkbook, but the district's lean is evident, and Hahn would probably roll to a win by a margin similar to the 16-point edge the Democrats took last night. A Hahn-Bowen general election, on the other hand, would be first-class political junkie entertainment. The primary made clear that these two don't like each other very much, plus there are the added dynamics of what becomes of the Winograd vote. Furthermore, do Republicans stay home, or does one of the two Democrats try to find a unique appeal. It would be fascinating.
The DCCC, without question, hopes that they get that chance.
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