Democrats completed a clean sweep of California’s statewide offices Wednesday as Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley conceded the race for attorney general, ending weeks of uncertainty in one of the closest statewide elections in California history.
With the number of uncounted ballots dwindling and his rival’s lead at more than 50,000 votes, Cooley telephoned San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris early Wednesday to congratulate the Democratic victor.
Cooley’s loss delivered yet another blow to state Republicans reeling from their failure to capture the governor’s mansion or a U.S. Senate seat.
Many viewed the Los Angeles prosecutor, who enjoys a reputation as an even-handed moderate, as the GOP’s best hope of winning a major office in the Nov. 2 election. Harris, a Bay Area liberal who opposes the death penalty, was considered particularly vulnerable.
But while Republicans rode a wave of discontent in the rest of the nation, political experts said Cooley’s defeat shows the enormous difficulties the GOP faces in rebuilding support in California.
“The conventional wisdom was Steve Cooley was the one sure thing on the ballot,” said Adam Mendelsohn, a Republican strategist and former aide to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “It’s an absolute wake-up call to Republicans to acknowledge how Californians vote.”
The victory marked a rare time in California when one party captured all statewide elected offices. The Democrats did it last in 2002.
Despite Cooley’s concession, Harris held off on claiming victory but scheduled a news conference for Tuesday.
The daughter of a Jamaican father and a mother from India, Harris made history by becoming the first woman and first non-white candidate to win election as the state’s top law enforcement officer.
In her new post, she will decide where the state stands on some of the most important and controversial political issues, including same-sex marriage and President Obama’s healthcare reforms. Harris supports both.
The attorney general’s office has historically offered a springboard to higher office. Among those who have made the jump from attorney general to governor: Earl Warren, Pat Brown, George Deukmejian and, most recently, Jerry Brown.
Considered a rising star in the Democratic Party, Harris’ victory puts her in a good position in the future, several political observers said.
“For want of a better term, she has a star quality,” said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a former national GOP official.
Cooley, who did not appear at a news conference where his campaign announced his concession, was back at work Wednesday at the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, his campaign consultant said. In a statement, Cooley said he planned to complete “my third term and finish my career as a professional prosecutor in the office where it began over 37 years ago.”
Political observers considered Cooley an early favorite in the race. He had the hometown advantage in Los Angeles County, which makes up 25% of the state’s electorate. And though a Republican in a heavily Democratic area, Cooley had shown himself a political success, becoming the first person to win three terms to the nonpartisan post of district attorney in more than 70 years.
Harris cast herself as “smart on crime” and called for new approaches aimed at reducing recidivism and prison overcrowding. Cooley promised a nonpartisan approach to the office and described his opponent as a radical who opposed the death penalty.
On election night, Cooley claimed victory. Moments later, he told a reporter that the announcement would represent “one of those Dewey moments” should he lose, referring to the infamous 1948 Chicago Daily Tribune headline that incorrectly proclaimed that Thomas Dewey had defeated Harry Truman for president.
By morning, he awoke to find Harris ahead.
The campaigns spent an agonizing few weeks awaiting a final result as armies of county election workers pored over ballots that remained uncounted. Those included mostly mail-in ballots that had arrived too late to tally before election day and so-called provisional ballots, which are given to voters when polling places do not have a record of their registration, often because a voter has moved since registering.
With more than 2.3 million ballots still to count after election night, Cooley regained the lead only to watch it evaporate. Harris has held a slim advantage for more than a week.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Harris led by nearly 58,000 votes — 4,397,026 to 4,339,097 — according to a Times review of updated vote tallies in all 58 counties.
Cooley campaign consultant Kevin Spillane said that the gap was too large to make up and that a recount would be cost prohibitive. Under state law, candidates who demand a recount must pick up the tab for the tally. A recount in San Diego County, for example, would have cost an estimated $400,000 to $500,000, the county’s registrar said.
“It would be overly divisive, and we’re not confident that it would reverse it ultimately,” Spillane said at a news conference.
In the end, Cooley failed to carry his hometown of Los Angeles County, losing by more than 14 percentage points.
Several Democratic campaign strategists have faulted Cooley for not running a more aggressive campaign against Harris. But Kam Kuwata, a veteran Democratic strategist who worked for former L.A. City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo in the Democratic primary, said Cooley’s loss was due mainly to party loyalty and the state’s large number of registered Democrats.
Harris, he said, also was buoyed by a large turnout of Latino voters who supported Democrats for governor and U.S. senator and then checked off the rest of the Democratic candidates lower on the ballot.
“The sleeping giant is no longer asleep,” Kuwata said. “It is going to be one of the most important demographic groups in partisan races for some time to come.”
Spillane said Cooley had less name recognition in Los Angeles than many might expect, noting that the district attorney has preferred to keep a low profile during his decade as the county’s top prosecutor.
“He does not operate as a politician,” Spillane said. “He’s not someone who has positioned himself for statewide office.”
But Spillane also noted that Democrats trounced every other Republican candidate for statewide office by at least 28 percentage points in Los Angeles County. Indeed, statewide, Cooley won more votes than any other Republican, including gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman.
“Did he lose because he’s a Republican? Ultimately, yes,” Spillane said.
Times staff writer David Zahniser and Times researcher Robin Mayper contributed to this report.