National GOP Wave Almost Hits California

Probable winners Alex Padilla and Betty Yee.EXPAND
Probable winners Alex Padilla and Betty Yee.
Courtesy, campaigns of Padilla and Yee

Democrats Alex Padilla and Betty Yee won posts as Secretary of State and State Controller in highly unusual close races against moderate Republicans Pete Peterson and Ashley Swearingen, respectively. Padilla beat Peterson by a narrow 52.5% to 47.5% and Yee beat Swearingen by 52.8% to 47.2%. Peterson and Swearingen had championed fiscal competence and both were endorsed by the staunchly Democratic Los Angeles Times.

Those slight statewide Democratic victories against Republicans — in a state whose 18 million registered voters are 43% Democrat, 28% Republican, 23% decline to state, and 5% lesser parties — may serve as a message to both political parties:

For the California Republican Party, the message might be that while it poured its campaign funds into individual state senate and assembly races, hoping to elect enough extra GOP legislators to gain some smidgen of control over the state budget (but very little real control, as long a strong Democratic governor is in place) the party has all but abandoned efforts to cultivate and finance promising future leaders for the GOP. Swearingen and Peterson, for example.

For the California Democratic Party, the message is that while the party almost can't lose because of the sheer number of Democratic voters in heavy populated Los Angeles County and the Bay Area, the party's numerous scandals among indicted and convicted Democratic legislators, and their complacency in office, could at some point anger the state's growing crowd of decline-to-state voters. 

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Padilla, who dreams of being Los Angeles mayor one day and graduated from MIT, never worried all that much about the candidacy of political newbie Pete Peterson, a former Hoover Institution fellow at Stanford who runs the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine. Yet the Secretary of State's office is a disaster zone under a Democrat, Debra Bowen, whose personal mental health problems left her hiding out in a rundown, cardboard-patched trailer while her staff dubiously insisted that she was working hard and all was well.

That didn't breed trust with the more independent voters toward Debra Bowen's powerful department, which is responsible for overseeing the fairness and accuracy of California elections — and election counts. A Field Poll in September had shown Padilla ahead by a healthy 43 to 36 percent with 21 percent undecided.

In the race for state controller, a September Field poll showed Betty Yee well ahead of Republican Ashley Swearingen, the mayor of Fresno. But the hard-fought race over who would become California's chief check-writer and a key member of the state pension board raised eyebrows when the Sacramento Bee became yet another normally Democratic newspaper to endorse Swearingen over Yee.

Both women have years of competency behind them and both showed independence from their parties. Yee, for example, who has worked in state finances for decades and sits on the Board of Equalization — which rules on business tax disputes — touted a plan to radically overhaul California's tax system by spreading it across more people including the working-class and middle class.

But at the same time, Yee seemed to crumple in the face of state employee unions on the question of controlling ballooning state pensions, which probably hurt her with decline-to-state voters who are heavily liberal — but also often deeply suspicious of government.

The result was an unexpectedly long night for Padilla and Yee. 


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