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Ashley Swearengin leads, but controller race still too close to call

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No Republican has held California controller's office since 1975
There are almost 150,000 votes left to be counted in Los Angeles County
California controller candidate Ashley Swearengin is viewed as GOP's best shot to win statewide office

Ever since Jim Brulte became chairman of the California Republican Party last year, he's been careful to set low expectations. With limited resources and declining voter registration, he's said, the party must slowly rebuild at the local level.

But that didn't stop Brulte from reaching out to Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin earlier this year and urging her to run for controller, one of the state's top financial positions. After tackling difficult budget issues in California's fifth-largest city, she's viewed as her party's best shot to win a statewide seat in November.

Swearengin received the most votes of any controller candidate in Tuesday's primary, which featured a four-way dogfight that also involved Assemblyman John A. Pérez, Board of Equalization member Betty Yee and former California City Mayor David Evans.

The final results are still being tallied, and there are almost 150,000 votes left to be counted in Los Angeles County alone. Pérez, a Los Angeles Democrat, issued a statement Wednesday saying he expects to advance to the general election, while a consultant for Yee, a Bay Area Democrat, said "the race is far from over."

Despite Swearengin's strength in the primary, political observers and consultants on both sides of the aisle view her bid for controller as an uphill climb in a deeply blue state.

"The numbers make it very difficult for Democrats to lose," said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California.

Less than one-third of voters are registered Republicans, and no Republican has held the controller's office since 1975.

"There's no recent history to suggest Republicans can be competitive in a statewide race," said Garry South, a Democratic political consultant.

South pointed to Susan Golding, a Republican mayor of San Diego who eyed higher office.

"It went nowhere," South said. "Just because you have some bright shining star as mayor of a city somewhere … does not necessarily mean that translates into the ability to win statewide office."

Brulte said it's not impossible for Republicans to win a statewide seat. "Anyone who can tell you with certainty what's going to happen in November, they're just pontificating," he said.

Still, he said, the state party needs to be stingy with its limited cash, adding, "We have to pick and choose our fights."

Republican consultants said the party's chances will be boosted with Neel Kashkari, a moderate Republican and former U.S. Treasury official, at the top of the ticket. Kashkari beat Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks), a right-wing conservative, in the primary.

But Gov. Jerry Brown is still widely expected to win reelection, and Democrats are safe bets for most other statewide seats.

Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom are considered secure in their bids for reelection. Newsom is facing Ron Nehring, a former chairman of the state Republican Party. Ronald Gold, a Republican and former deputy attorney general, appeared to have enough votes in the primary to advance to the general election and challenge Harris.

In the race for treasurer, Controller John Chiang, a Democrat, is the strong favorite over Republican Greg Conlon, a retired accountant who chairs the city of Atherton's audit and finance committee.

Pete Peterson, a Republican and executive director of a public policy think tank at Pepperdine University, is running for secretary of state against state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima). Billing himself as an "outsider with experience," Peterson said "voters are willing to hear from some fresh faces."

A major hurdle for Swearengin and Peterson is Los Angeles County, the state's most populous area and a Democratic stronghold.

To win a statewide election, a Republican needs to receive more than 40% of the vote in the county, said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

Less than 21% of the county's voters are registered Republicans, and the county is home turf for Pérez and Padilla.

Swearengin won almost 24% of the county's voters Tuesday, compared to 28% for Pérez and 23% for Yee.

"We held our own for a Republican in Los Angeles," said Tim Clark, Swearengin's campaign manager.

He said voters are ready for a Republican to serve as controller, pointing to a strong showing by Evans, the former California City mayor. Primary results showed him competing with Pérez and Yee for second place.

Political consultants said voters probably thought Evans' title on the ballot — "chief financial officer," the job he holds at a chain of car dealerships — made him a good fit for controller.

In statewide races for positions other than governor, voters rarely get much information about the candidates. Case in point: State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) racked up nearly 288,000 votes in the secretary of state race even though he dropped out after being indicted on charges of corruption and conspiracy to traffic in firearms.

chris.megerian@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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