On May 21st, the voters of California's 16th Senate District nearly voted to elect a Republican even though President Obama won the district handily in 2012. This district is a 71% Hispanic district representing all of Kings County and heavily Hispanic parts of Fresno, Tulare and Kern Counties. This was a special election for the seat that State Sen. Michael Rubio (D) vacated in order to serve as a lobbyist for Chevron. The rules for this special election are that all candidates will run in an all party primary and if no candidate receives the 50.1% majority or more, there will be a runoff on July 23rd. The seat is important for Democrats so they can retain their 2/3 majority in the State Senate. The main Democratic candidate is Leticia Perez (D), a young Kern County Supervisor and the Republican candidate is Andy Vidak (R), the 2010 candidate for the 20th Congressional district representing parts of Fresno, Kings and Kern Counties. Perez campaigned on the high speed rail, raising the minimum wage to $9 and not raising taxes on working families. The CA Democratic Party also encouraged Democratic organizations (including the USC Democrats which I am a proud member of,) to campaign for Perez. Despite the hard work, Perez fell short on election night with Vidak winning 51.9% on the morning of May 22nd. Provisional ballots are being counted and have brought Vidak's numbers down to 49.8% and Perez's up from 41% to 43.8% (the other 8% went to less advertised Democratic candidates.) The race will now probably go to a July 23rd runoff because no candidate won 50.1% of the vote or more. There are almost no ballots in Fresno and Kern Counties but there are 135 left in Kings County and 170 left in Tulare County. Vidak needs to get a 211 vote margin from these 305 votes which means 85% of the remaining ballots must break for him which is unlikely. Many Republicans however are touting Vidak's numbers as a resurgence for Republicans in California and evidence that Republican candidates can win Hispanics. No exit polls were conducted on this race but this race should be seen not as a sign of Republican resurgence in California or with Hispanics. This race should be seen as a sign of low turnout especially with Hispanic voters which is typical in off year California elections, especially in the Central Valley.
(note: while I am a member of the USC Democrats and campaigned for Leticia Perez, the views espoused in this article do not represent the views of the Perez campaign, the CA Democratic Party or the USC Democrats. This article only represents my opinion.)
In 2010, turnout in this area was low. The Democratic base in this district is Hispanics and the white voters in this district are mostly Republicans. Also, Rep. Jim Costa (D) who represented the 20th Congressional district which overlaps much of the 16th State Senate district barely won in 2010, winning 51% of the vote. The reason is probably low turnout. Many of the Hispanics counted here in the 2010 census may be undocumented residents who cannot vote or documented residents who are not citizens yet and cannot vote. Also, some may be migrant farmworkers who do not have a permanent residence and travel around the valley depending on the harvest. The 2012 June primary is a bigger example of low turnout. Dianne Feinstein (D) only won 49% of the vote in the primary statewide. While she slightly underperformed in the Bay Area, she performed poorly in Los Angeles and other heavily Hispanic areas. She won 62% of the vote statewide in November and performed well in heavily Hispanic areas so Feinstein's problem was not that Hispanics preferred her opponent, it was that many of them were not voting. Therefore, it appears that Hispanics in these off year elections, especially special elections and primaries, have lower turnout rates.
Here are the turnout rates by county for each candidate compared with the 2012 Presidential election totals.
Senate District 16
Fresno 50,332 25,618
Kern 26,400 13,955
Kings 14,747 19,710
Tulare 9,389 8,166
Totals 100,868 67,449
Percent 58.3% 39.8%
Fresno 13,336 10,997
Kern 8,563 5,215
Kings 3,286 11,104
Tulare 2,079 3,677
Total: 27,264 30,993
Percent 43.8% 49.8%
As shown, while Kern County had higher turnout than Kings County in 2012, it was the opposite in the State Senate election where Kings County had higher turnout. The Kern County portion of the 16th district is heavily Hispanic, and contains east Bakersfield which is heavily Hispanic. Kings County is roughly split between Hispanics and Whites but most of the Kings County Hispanics do not vote, either due to being below 18, not having permanent residence and not having citizenship. Therefore, Kings County is extremely Republican (and it is Vidak's home base.) Even President Obama in 2012 only won 40% of the vote there.
The Republicans' main response to this argument is CA-21 where David Valadao (R) won a 54% Obama district in 2012 with 58% of the vote. For CA-21, it has similar lines to SD-16. The reason for Valadao's win is not that Hispanics in the valley are trending Republican, it is that Valadao faced a poor Democratic candidate. John Hernandez (D), Valadao's challenger was poorly funded (the DCCC's preferred candidate Fresno City Councilman Blong Xiong (D) lost in the June 2012 primary,) and ran a poor campaign. For example, he spelled Karl Rove as "Carl Rove" in one of the ads. Democrats should nominate a candidate such as Perez for this seat and then they can win. Perez has a solid base in Kern County as a Supervisor, she can raise money and she is very likable. She needs to run in 2014 or 2016 though when Hispanic turnout will be higher than in the special election.
Overall, as of Sunday, May 26th, the provisional ballots are being counted and the counting will finish on Friday May 31st. Vidak currently has 49.8% of the vote and it is surprising that the pundits did not see his 51.9% lead from the morning of Wednesday May 22nd declining because provisional ballots favor Democrats in California and make a difference in close races. In 2010, CA Attorney General Kamala Harris (D) was behind and her opponent declared victory but when the provisional ballots finished reporting, she won. Even more importantly, Costa in 2010 was behind but won when all the provisional ballots reported. Even in 2012 the provisional ballots changed results transforming a 2 point Romney lead in Fresno County into a 2 point Obama lead. Perez is ready to run but no matter what happens with this race or the runoff, it should not be an indicator for Republicans that Hispanics are winnable, it should be an indicator to the Democrats that the turnout rates for Hispanics are lower in special elections.