As poll workers Tuesday collected the last trickle of votes in a statewide primary expected to draw one of the lowest turnouts in California's history, frontrunners in several area races appeared to be headed for spots on the November general election ballot — though one contest was a bit tighter than expected.
Former Newport Beach mayor and longtime area conservative political insider Keith Curry led a crowded field of contenders to represent the 74th state Assembly District by a relatively slim margin, despite far outspending his opponents.
"I am gratified by the response from the voters, particularly from Newport Beach," he said, adding that "attacks" by Huntington Beach Mayor Matthew Harper on Newport's spending on public facilities were proven ineffective. "I look forward to a spirited campaign in November, talking about how to lower taxes, create jobs, protect Proposition 13 and get California growing again."
Curry has consistently led in fundraising and secured endorsements from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) and former Sen. Marian Bergeson, so what seemed to be the bigger question heading into Tuesday's race was which of the four remaining candidates — Republicans Harper and Emanuel Patrascu, and Democrats Anila Ali and Karina Onofre — would face Curry in the general election later this year.
But as of just after 10 p.m., with absentee ballots and a small percentage of precincts reporting, Harper trailed Curry by just 4.6%, having garnered 24.3% of the votes counted in the district, which includes Huntington Beach, Irvine, Laguna Beach, Laguna Woods and Newport Beach.
Harper said he was having a "low-key" night Tuesday, as he prepared for the bigger battle to come.
"I'm going to love when we finally calculate this out — the cost per vote," he said. "I'm feeling great.... Curry was clearly not able to sell to a majority of voters."
Nevertheless, that two Republicans could be head-to-head in the general election was unsurprising, given the district's registration, said Fred Smoller, an associate political science professor at Chapman University who closely follows Orange County politics.
And the recognizability that comes with having led two of the district's major cities certainly gave both Curry and Harper an edge over Patrascu, who works for Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) and previously ran for Laguna Beach City Council. Onofre, a businesswoman who also lives in Irvine, previously ran for Santa Ana City Council. Ali, an Irvine teacher, was a political newcomer.
With about 19.3% of the vote, Ali was solidly in third place.
"This was more than we expected," she said Tuesday.
Onofre, who switched from Republican to Democrat mid-campaign, came in fourth with 16%. Patrascu was in last with 11.5%.
Under the state's open primary system, which got its first full-scale test Tuesday, the top two vote-getters in the primary will move on to the general election in November, regardless of political party. The system applies to races for the state Legislature and Congress, as well as statewide office.
Though Curry and Harper have tended to agree on general conservative principles, such as curbing spending, the two have found themselves at odds on more local issues — most notably, how to balance the sacred California tradition of burning wood in beach fire rings with the health concerns they pose for residents living nearby.
Curry has pushed for city-by-city control over where beachgoers are allowed to burn, largely in response to worries raised by Newport residents who have lobbied hard to rid the city's beaches of wood-burning pits. Harper, on the other hand, stood by Huntington's charge to prevent regional air quality regulators from imposing any rules that could threaten even a handful of the city's wood-burning fire pits.
Still, Smoller predicted Monday that the race heading into the general election will likely boil down to a simpler opposition:
"Huntington Beach has the numbers, and Newport Beach has the money," he said.
Orange County Supervisor race
Meanwhile, current 74th District Assemblyman Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa) lagged far behind state Board of Equalization Member Michelle Steel in the race to represent the Orange County Board of Supervisors' 2nd district.
Unlike in the state primary system, candidates for countywide or local office can still win outright with more than 50% of the vote.
That didn't appear to be the case late Tuesday night, though Steel, widely considered a frontrunner to replace termed-out Supervisor John Moorlach, got pretty close: She had garnered 47.5% of votes, with 36 of 423 precincts reporting.
Mansoor — a former mayor of Costa Mesa who earned endorsements from the city's strongly conservative current leadership — had 23.3% of the vote as of 10:30 p.m.
Republican Huntington Beach Councilman Joe Carchio had 7.8% and the sole Democrat in the race, Coast Community College District Trustee Jim Moreno, had earned 21.4%.
Smoller said that because Tuesday's primary would likely draw a smaller chunk of the electorate, one more reflective of "traditional" Republican Orange County, the toss-up between Steel and Mansoor had become "an echo rather than a choice, to misquote Barry Goldwater."
He added that since no candidate was likely to garner the majority of the vote in the primary, the election was "kind of a dustup, if you will. A pregame."
Although both Mansoor and Steel have boasted credibility with different factions of conservatives in the region, Steel has far outstripped all of her opponents in fundraising. At a forum in April she said she'd raised more than half a million dollars.
Reached Tuesday evening, the Surfside resident said she'd hoped to finish her campaign with the primary, but that she planned to continue raising money and "working hard."
"I wish I had a great win right out, but you know, I'm going to go all the way to the general election and we're going to win no matter what," she said. "I don't take anything for granted."
Mansoor said late Tuesday night that he was watching returns carefully.
"We're still watching the votes come in like everybody else," he said.
Moorlach, who endorsed Mansoor to replace him on the Board of Supervisors, said election day brought mixed feelings. The longtime county official had planned to run for the 45th Congressional District seat soon to be vacated by Rep. John Campbell (R-Irvine), who announced plans to retire.
Instead, Moorlach announced in March that he was dropping that bid so that he could focus more on his current job as a supervisor and finish out his political career.
"Half of me is like, 'Boy, I'm glad I didn't run a campaign with Laura's Law, and all of that going on,'" he said, referring to the board's recent decision to make Orange County the first large county to implement the law aimed at helping mentally ill adults. "But the other half is like, 'Darn, I could have beaten her.' So I'm mixed."
In that race, State Sen. Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Niguel) appeared to have easily won a ticket to the November runoff with 45.7% of the vote, with 79 of 485 precincts counted. Her likely opponent, Democrat Drew Leavens of Irvine, had 29.8%.
48th Congressional District race
Longtime Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) was rolling toward a 14th term in the 48th Congressional District, with 55% of the votes collected by late Tuesday. Suzanne Savary, a Democrat from Newport Beach was poised to be his challenger in November's general election, coming in second with 19% of the vote.
Orange County contests
In other countywide races, incumbents also seemed to be cruising to victories.
Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, who is serving his fourth term now, appeared to be headed for a fifth, with the added title of public administrator. As of late Tuesday night, he'd garnered 72.4% of the vote over his opponent, attorney and Democratic activist Greg Diamond.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens was running unopposed, as was County Treasurer-Tax Collector Shari Freidenrich.
County Assessor Webster Guillory had 50.9% of the votes counted late Tuesday night.
Clerk-Recorder Hugh Nguyen had earned 60.8% of the vote as of about 9:50 p.m.
Finally, a countywide ballot measure, that would prohibit the county from shouldering any of the pension burden for its elected officials was poised to pass easily. With 161 of 1856 precincts counted, almost 88% of voters had said yes to Measure A.
[For the record, 9:01 a.m. June 4: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Emanuel Patrascu had never ran for political office before. Actually, he ran for a seat on Laguna Beach City Council in 2010. Also, Karina Onofre once ran for Santa Ana City Council.]