Berniecrats Go Bust In California's 34th Congressional District Special Election

The two likely top vote-getters: Robert Ahn, left, and Jimmy Gomez
The two likely top vote-getters: Robert Ahn, left, and Jimmy Gomez

The campaign to replace former U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra was notable in part because his 34th Congressional District had voted for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. With three Berniecrats vying for the 34th District seat, would one of them make the runoff? Would progressives send a message to the Democratic Party that they were mad as hell, and so forth? The answer, it appears, is a resounding no.

The results of the special election are in, more or less. In a race that also featured a half dozen or so interesting female candidates, it appears that two men are headed to a runoff: State Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, who finished first (but was 22 points shy of the 50 percent needed for an outright win), and attorney Robert Ahn, who trailed Gomez by about 9 points. There are still roughly 13,400 ballots left to be counted. That's a lot of ballots, but Ahn has about double the vote total of the third-place finisher, Maria Cabildo, so the results look final-ish.

The three Berniecrats — former Sanders staffer Arturo Carmona, activist/journalist Wendy Carrillo and Green Party candidate Kenneth Mejia — altogether received just 4,244 votes (pending the late votes still to be counted). That's fewer than Ahn got all by himself.

"Certainly, the voters didn’t see it as a struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party," says Gomez's political consultant, Parke Skelton. "That’s something the press invented."

Mainstream Democrat Gomez prevailed with 28 percent of the vote. The candidate, who already represents much of the district as its state Assemblyman, raised the most money and was endorsed by most of the city's top elected officials, as well as by now–state Attorney General Becerra. Gomez is considered the strong frontrunner in the June runoff against Ahn.

The 34th District covers Koreatown, downtown, Boyle Heights, Eagle Rock, Highland Park and some of Echo Park.

"Jimmy comes out of a grassroots organizing background, and a labor background," Skelton says. "I think this portrayal of him as an establishment Democrat was erroneous from the start."

Ahn was not a strong favorite at the start of the campaign but turned heads when the early ballots began to come in. As political data nerd extraordinaire Paul Mitchell has been pointing out, the number of early voters with Asian-American surnames was extraordinarily high – so high, in fact, that they made up a plurality, despite the fact that there are far more Latinos living and registered to vote in the district. Ahn, a Korean lawyer who campaigned heavily in Koreatown, won the early vote-by-mail vote, and then fell behind Gomez once the precinct ballots began to be counted.

Though Asian-Americans make up about 10 percent of the city's population, there are few Asian-American elected officials. An exception is City Councilman David Ryu, who is Korean-American and who campaigned heavily in Koreatown to beat frontrunner Carolyn Ramsey in 2015.

"In a low turnout election, small ethnic groups can have a massively outsized impact on a race," Mitchell says. "That’s something we’ve seen in L.A. for years."

It was a victory of traditional campaigns over newfangled, social media–dependent, millennial-focused campaigns. Many of the younger candidates in the race, including Carrillo, Sara Hernandez and Alejandra Campoverdi, had well-produced videos and active Twitter and Facebook accounts. And although they were able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, they didn't receive many votes.

Ahn, meanwhile, focused on traditional campaign methods — paying people to register voters and to urge them to vote early, and sending out mailers, including a "Robert Ahn for Congress" potholder. Ahn had tweeted just twice before Election Night (one a response to a disgruntled voter angry at Ahn's incessant mailers) and had only 83 Twitter followers. His campaign's Facebook page has only 533 likes. Carrillo's has 4,213, Hernandez's has 1,715 and Campoverdi's has 1,920. All had more likes than votes (at least for now).

Once the late absentee and provisional ballots are counted, turnout should be somewhere around 14 percent – a rather paltry total. For all the attention given to Donald Trump and the "resistance," Northeast L.A. voters don't seem overly concerned about who they send to Congress to stand up to him.

"The Bernie candidates were counting on the Bernie surge to take them over the top," Skelton says, "and they didn’t get it."


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