In the hours after polls closed in last week's election, it looked like an obscure Mojave Desert bookkeeper who'd run a dirt-cheap campaign might pull off the unlikely feat of denying state Assembly Speaker John Pérez a spot in the November runoff for state controller.
But Republican accountant David Evans of California City is no longer standing in the speaker's way. Instead, the one who still might thwart Pérez's ambition is Bay Area Democrat Betty Yee, a member of the state Board of Equalization.
As county election clerks have counted hundreds of thousands of ballots over the last eight days, Pérez, a Los Angeles Democrat, has been trading places with Yee and Evans — in the runoff one day, out the next.
On Tuesday, Yee led Pérez by 1,073 votes out of an estimated 4.3 million cast. By Wednesday, Pérez had pulled 43 votes ahead of Yee, with several hundred thousand still uncounted.
Pérez is counting on outstanding ballots from his home county to keep him ahead, along with Riverside, Fresno and Kern. Yee is hoping for big gains in Sonoma, Marin, Santa Cruz, Monterey and Sacramento counties.
"It will be tight, for certain," Pérez strategist Doug Herman said.
Republican Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin finished first in last week's primary, advancing to a runoff against her yet-to-be-determined opponent. Yee and Pérez are battling for second.
For Evans, the outlook appeared grim Wednesday after an updated tally found him nearly 17,000 votes behind Pérez.
Still, to win about 21.2% of the vote — Pérez and Yee were each a whisker ahead with 21.6% — is a major coup for Evans. He spent just $600 on his campaign. Pérez, by contrast, spent more than $2 million, running television ads in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento.
Evans, 52, is chief financial officer and part owner of a Bay Area chain of car dealers, Boardwalk Motor Car Group of Redwood City. A pilot and flight instructor, he flies his four-seat Cessna to work each week from his hometown near Edwards Air Force Base.
And while car salesmen might not be popular, Evans was identified on the ballot as a generic "chief financial officer," an appealing occupation for a candidate aspiring to be the state's chief accountant. That, along with his "nice all-American sounding name," was apparently enough to match — or just about — the speaker's costly TV advertising, said Yee consultant Parke Skelton.
"Most people who are voting in this race haven't even thought about it until they step into the polling place," Skelton said. "People are basically picking names at random."
In the secretary of state's voter guide, mailed to nearly 18 million Californians, Evans described himself as simply "most qualified for controller" and provided his mobile phone number.
"The day of the election, it was out of control," he said. "I was answering calls all day long."
Evans also put his personal email address in the voter guide."I answered every email myself," he said. "That was a little out of control too."
From 2006 to 2008, Evans was mayor of California City, an isolated eastern Kern County tumbleweed town with 14,000 residents and a state prison.
In 2010, Evans spent $400 on a run for state controller. He managed to score 40% in what was then the Republican Party primary. Two years later, he ran for mayor again, telling the Mojave Desert News that conflicts of interest in city government were "multiplying like rabbits in a hutch." He lost.
In the controller's contest last week, Evans landed in the No. 2 spot on election night, but dropped to third place by the next morning as more ballots were tallied. Evans returned to second place the following day, then slipped to third a day later. Since Saturday, he's been stuck in fourth.
Evans, however, has not given up hope.
"We're just not going to know until the ballots are counted," he said. "We're just waiting."