Trailing by fewer than 700 votes with the absentee ballot count still incomplete, Democrat Christian F. (Rick) Thierbach said Wednesday he would not concede defeat in the bruising 72nd Assembly District race until the tally is final.
Supporters indicated that they may seek a recount, but Thierbach said he would do so only if Republican Curt Pringle’s margin of victory narrowed to 50 votes or fewer. Democrats, who waged an all-out effort to capture the central Orange County seat, pinned their last hope on an estimated 30,000 uncounted absentee ballots collected or received Tuesday from around the county by the registrar of voters.
Even if a substantial number of those ballots are from the 72nd District, Thierbach is not optimistic that the final outcome in the race would change.
“Absentee ballots tend to favor Republicans,” Thierbach said. “I’m not brimming with optimism.”
Election officials said the ballot count will not be completed until at least Friday.
For Pringle, the race ended at 7:15 a.m. Wednesday, when he claimed victory in his suite at the Doubletree Hotel in Orange.
Surrounded by his wife, Alexis, and a few supporters, Pringle said he had won because of his precinct-walking: “I’ve told people that no matter how many new voters you register or what kind of slick mailers you have, it doesn’t mean as much as the hand-to-hand, eye-to-eye contact that the candidate is willing to make.”
Pringle, 29, is chairman of the Garden Grove Planning Commission and vice chairman of the Orange County Republican Central Committee. He was chosen by the GOP Central Committee as the Republican nominee to succeed Assemblyman Richard E. Longshore (R-Santa Ana), who died June 8. He had been a political unknown outside GOP circles and is involved in a family drapery manufacturing and dry-cleaning business in Anaheim.
When asked about his immediate plans, Pringle feigned an announcer’s voice in a spoof of a popular TV commercial and said: “I’m going to Disneyland!”
Thierbach and the Democrats, however, were all business Wednesday, still fuming that the county GOP had hired uniformed security guards to observe voters at about 20 polling locations in Latino neighborhoods in central and south Santa Ana.
The guards were hired after Pringle’s campaign officials reported that they had received anonymous tips that Democrats planned to bus non-citizens to various polling places to cast ballots, according to Pringle consultant Carlos Rodriguez.
Local Democratic and Republican leaders alike condemned the use of the guards, but Thierbach said it probably was not a factor in his defeat. He blamed a lower-than-expected voter turnout in the district.
Thierbach, 38, a longtime Anaheim resident who ran unsuccessfully for the Assembly in 1980, estimated that 60% of the district’s 110,000 registered voters went to the polls, well below the countywide voter turnout of 72%.
“It is always more difficult for a Democrat to win if the turnout is low,” said Thierbach, adding that his chances may have been hurt by network TV projections of a George Bush presidential victory hours before California polls closed.
Based on a preliminary review of voting patterns Tuesday, Orange County Registrar of Voters Donald F. Tanney said the county turnout was not “greatly influenced” by the early call in the presidential contest.
He conceded, however, that in a close race “we may never know the true impact of exit-poll predictions” by the media.
Thomas A. Fuentes, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party, said Pringle may have benefited from Bush’s victory.
He said Bush’s “coattails may just have been long enough” to pull Pringle over the top.
The closeness of the race caught Pringle and his campaign staff by surprise. Rodriguez credited an intensive grass-roots effort by Democrats in the campaign’s closing days. Thierbach marshaled a volunteer force of 400 workers on Election Day to contact voters and urge them to go to the polls.
“I have to hand it to the Democrats,” Rodriguez said. “They are really teaching the Republicans a lesson when it comes to getting out the vote. We’re going to have to sit down and analyze what they are doing right.”
Pringle dined Wednesday night with his family and key campaign aides before flying to Sacramento on his first trip as assemblyman-elect to meet with the GOP Assembly caucus.
Pringle said his first task will be to unify the district. He said his victory goes “a long way” toward pulling together Longshore’s former supporters, Republican activists and minority leaders in district.
Pringle also said he plans to hire a Latino for his staff, a decision he said was made before the guards uproar.
“We had 107 days to put this campaign together,” Pringle said. “I think we did a pretty fair job.”
As for Thierbach, a prosecutor with the Riverside County district attorney’s office, the political future is uncertain.
“About all that is certain,” Thierbach said Wednesday, “is I’m going to be back at work tomorrow. I’ve got a lot of work to catch up on.”