Three hours after the election polls closed, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley strode onto a stage at the Beverly Hilton Hotel and gave supporters of his campaign for state attorney general some news to cheer.
“Although my … close advisors think it’s a little too early, I’m declaring victory,” he said to a roaring crowd.
Early voting tallies showed Cooley with a comfortable lead. But within hours, his advantage had evaporated.
By Wednesday morning, Cooley’s opponent, San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris, was leading by a razor’s edge and the moderate Republican looked like he had jumped the gun. With all of the precincts and early mail-in ballots counted, Cooley trailed late Wednesday by 9,030 votes in a race that drew more than 7 million ballots.
With such a slim gap, the election for California’s top law enforcement office remained too close to call, and a clear winner may not emerge for days or weeks. Election officials have yet to review hundreds of thousands of provisional ballots and absentee ballots that arrived by mail or were handed in at polling places on election day. Counties have 28 days to complete their counts.
Cooley was widely seen as an early favorite in the race thanks to a history of electoral success in Los Angeles County, where he became the first district attorney in more than 70 years to win three terms.
But in Los Angeles County, Harris led Cooley by more than 14 percentage points. The county has nearly 400,000 uncounted ballots.
Harris campaign strategist Ace Smith said the county was a key battleground for Harris. As a result, she frequently visited Cooley’s hometown to woo voters. Smith projected that the final vote tally would give Harris a 3% margin over her opponent.
Kevin Spillane, Cooley’s campaign strategist, warned that there could be more than 1 million uncounted ballots statewide and said it was too early to speculate on a final result.
“It’s arrogant to make a projection,” he said.
Political observers said Harris rode a surge of support for Democrats across the state, including in Los Angeles County, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2 to 1.
Cooley’s previous election successes, they noted, came in nonpartisan races for district attorney where no candidate is identified by party affiliation.
“Cooley had everything going for him except for one thing: He had Republican under his name,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP consultant who publishes the nonpartisan California Target Book, which analyzes political races.
Democrats swept to comfortable victories in every other statewide office. And Cooley fared better than the rest of the GOP ticket, notching up more votes than gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman, U.S. Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina or any other Republican candidate.
In Los Angeles County, each of the other Democratic candidates for statewide office swept aside their Republican rivals by 28 percentage points or more — double Harris’ lead over Cooley.
But Hoffenblum said Cooley might have suffered from his low profile during 10 years in office, when he generally shunned the limelight and flashy news conferences.
“He’s not a candidate with a tremendous amount of name recognition,” Hoffenblum said. “He’s not a showboat D.A.”
At his campaign party Tuesday night, Cooley consciously played down his Republican label even as others suggested that a victory would make him the leader within the state GOP.
“I’m a Republican,” he told reporters, “but I’m very nonpartisan. It’s about doing the job, and doing it well.”
Some Democratic consultants said Cooley could have done more to shore up support in Los Angeles.
Cooley appealed to voters based on his record of going after misconduct by public officials, including those in the city of Bell. But campaign consultant Eric Hacopian said Harris exploited a comment Cooley made during a debate last month in which he said he would take both a county pension and the salary of attorney general if he won election.
Harris’ campaign used his response in an oft-shown attack ad that drew attention to Cooley’s description of the $151,000 attorney general salary as “very low, incredibly low.”
“It made him look like a hypocritical career politician,” said Doug Herman, another Democratic strategist.
But Spillane said his client should be credited with weathering a strong showing of Democrats who turned out in unexpected numbers to support gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown and U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer.
“He’s a Republican running in a state that’s increasingly Democratic,” Spillane said. “It’s a difficult and powerful wave to swim upstream against.”