Column: Voters paid attention to party affiliation, not positions, in California’s statewide primaries
When running for partisan political office, what usually counts most are simple things campaigns often can’t control — especially in a low-profile statewide race.
Take an office like state controller or insurance commission, for example. Or even a slightly higher-profile post such as attorney general.
Regardless of all the analyses we’ve seen about last week’s state elections, the outcomes mostly can be explained quite simply. They were determined by basic factors that are so obvious they hardly get mentioned.
The candidates’ positions on issues usually have little to do with the results because voters aren’t even aware of them. That’s especially true in a primary election.
When a voter doesn’t know squat about the candidates — which is usually the case — the first thing that’s looked for on the ballot is party affiliation. Is the candidate a Democrat or a Republican? That’s the most important factor, particularly these days when politics are so polarized.
Voters may also glance at a candidate’s listed profession. Incumbents hold a huge advantage, assuming they’re not linked to scandal.
Has the candidate been endorsed by the party? By a major labor union or other familiar interest?
What’s the person’s gender? Or ethnicity?
These are the cues that ordinary voters look for if they haven’t done their homework on the candidates’ positions and records. And few voters do.
Also, if candidates can’t raise enough money — or aren’t rich enough to spend their own — they aren’t able to pitch voters on TV and radio to get known.
This isn’t exactly breaking news. But it often gets overlooked in punditry.
In California, the Democrat label is a badge of acceptance. Conversely, a Republican nameplate is suspect. But if a candidate has “no party preference,” it’s often a nonstarter. Voters probably will look for someone else — as they did in the attorney general’s race.
Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta, a former Assembly member from Alameda County, was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to replace Xavier Becerra, who left for President Biden’s Cabinet. Bonta has been in office less than 14 months but seems to be doing a good job. It’s doubtful many voters know that, however. And this is his first statewide race, so he’s essentially a blank slate.
Two Republicans and an unaffiliated independent are running to unseat Democratic Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta. Their fight starts now, and against each other.
Among political junkies, Bonta seems vulnerable in an era when voters are rebelling against rising crime. His past support for reduced sentencing leaves him open to “soft on crime” attacks.
But Bonta is a Democrat and he’s the incumbent. So, as of Friday’s count, he was receiving about 55% of the vote.
Sacramento County Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert was assessed by many experts to be a potentially tough opponent in November. She’s a hard-nosed prosecutor who advocates for tougher sentencing and thinks career criminals have been coddled. But it’s unlikely many voters knew that.
She had little money, only roughly $1 million for advertising — chump change. It was her first statewide race, and she was little known outside Sacramento.
So, this contest didn’t turn on who’s soft or tough on crime. It was decided by party identification. And Schubert had no party ID. She left the GOP four years ago and became an independent. Her party preference was listed as “none.”
An unknown candidate without a party on a primary ballot is a lonely person, running without the support of a political base. Democratic and Republican voters can’t relate. And independents don’t normally vote in primaries.
Schubert is getting only around 8% of the vote statewide, although she’s running second with about 24% in Sacramento County. Voters have at least a slight acquaintance with her there.
Republicans voted for one of their own. Former Assistant U.S. Atty. Nathan Hochman, with around 18% of the vote, is running slightly ahead of Los Angeles-based attorney Eric Early, the more conservative of the pair. One of them will be Bonta’s November opponent.
All Democratic incumbents running for statewide partisan office — except one — are receiving more than 50% of the vote. The runners-up — their fall opponents — are trailing out of sight.
Lanhee Chen has the best chance of any Republican in many years to capture a statewide office in Democrat-dominant California, columnist George Skelton writes.
The exception is Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, who became embroiled in scandal after getting elected in 2018 and has been under constant attack from a Democratic opponent, Assemblyman Marc Levine of San Rafael.
But Lara is the Democratic incumbent and was endorsed by the state party. He finished comfortably on top, although with only 37% of the vote.
Levine and Republican cybersecurity equipment manufacturer Robert Howell are virtually tied for the runner-up spot, at around 17%. They’re trailed closely by another Republican, former California Public Utilities Commission President Greg Conlon.
This is a race in which a Democratic incumbent could get ousted in November — particularly if his opponent is another Democrat.
The one Republican who finished atop the primary heap was Controller candidate Lanhee Chen, a Stanford University instructor and former policy adviser for GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio.
This is Chen’s first bid for elected office, but math was on his side. He was the only Republican running, so he didn’t have to split the vote with a party rival. He’s tallying around 37%.
Running No. 2 is Democrat Malia Cohen, a state Board of Equalization member and former San Francisco supervisor. She’s at about 22%, roughly six percentage points ahead of Democrat Yvonne Yiu, a Monterey Park City Council member who spent $5.7 million of her own money.
Cohen campaigned as a progressive reformer, saying she’s passionate about making California equitable. But it’s doubtful many voters paid attention.
Her biggest asset was a long endorsement list, headed by the California Democratic Party and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The Democrat will be the front-runner in November.
But with the right odds, you might wager a few nickels on long-shot Chen.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.