The polls are closed, but remember: In California elections, this is just the beginning.
The June top-two primary is when California voters choose their two favorites for governor, for top prosecutor, for fiscal watchdog and for a phalanx of lesser known and less competitive positions. Ditto for each of the 80 Assembly districts, 20 state Senate races and 52 congressional districts where 160, 40 and 104 candidates, respectively, will emerge after all the ballots are counted. But there may not be as many ballots to count as in previous primaries, if projections on abysmal voter turnout prove right.
In some races, this is the election that counts. There will be overwhelmingly blue or decisively red districts where only one member of the dominant party will secure one of the two coveted spots, all but ensuring their victory in November. But in others, the contests will create Democrat versus Democrat battles or, to a far lesser extent, Republican versus Republican fights. And for most races, the results of the June 7 primary will set the terms for the contests to come. Which races will be most competitive? Which political factions and ideological movements will win out? And which issues will be most hotly discussed and debated?
Much of the national attention focused on two local races: For Los Angeles mayor, billionaire Rick Caruso and U.S. Rep. Karen Bass advanced to November. And San Francisco voters booted District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
For the impatient among you, we have bad news: California election officials take their time counting every last ballot. The outcome of particularly close races might not be certain for days, if not longer. We’ll keep updating, so don’t be a stranger.
After Gov. Gavin Newsom overwhelmingly defeated a recall attempt last September by nearly the same margin that he won his first term in 2018, momentum dissipated for a serious challenge to the Democrat’s re-election.
Facing a field of candidates with little statewide name recognition and barely any money to change that, Newsom received 56% of the vote in unofficial returns early Wednesday, positioning himself to cruise to victory again in November. He was declared one of the top two by the Associated Press within 15 minutes of the polls closing.
Newsom said on Twitter that California would be the “antidote” to Republican attacks on fundamental rights, “leading with compassion, common-sense and science. Treasuring diversity, defending democracy, and protecting our planet. Here’s to continuing that fight.”
He will face Republican state Sen. Brian Dahle of rural Lassen County, who was running a distant second with just less than 17% of the vote. An unapologetic conservative, Dahle also pitched himself as someone who could get more done at the state Capitol than the “dictator” Newsom because of his close relationships with fellow legislators.
“Gavin Newsom, he’s an elitist Democrat. He’s not even well-liked in his own party,” Dahle told Nexstar Media after the race was called for him. “We’re going to be talking about things that are affecting Californians’ everyday life, and we’ll see what happens in November.”
Author and nuclear energy activist Michael Shellenberger, who shed his party affiliation and tried appealing to the ideological center of the electorate, was tied for third place with Republican management consultant Jenny Rae Le Roux — both had just under 4% of the vote.
There was very little doubt that Attorney General Rob Bonta would come first in this primary. The big question was always which of his three right-of-center challengers would come in second, earning the right to challenge him in November.
Alas, we still don’t know.
Sure enough, the unofficial returns put Bonta far ahead of the pack, with 54.5% of the vote. Vying for second place are Republican Nathan Hochman with 18% and Republican Eric Early close to 16%. Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert was trailing with less than 8%.
The slim gap between Hochman and Early represents a familiar rift within the GOP. Hochman’s blue-chip resume, his seemingly moderate politics and his endorsement from the state GOP appeal to the pragmatically center-right. California voters haven’t elected a Republican statewide since 2006. If ever there was a GOP candidate who could appeal to independents and tired-as-hell Democrats to break that losing streak, the argument goes, it’s a guy like Hochman.
Early is well-known to red-meat Republican voters for his past electoral gambits. In 2018, he ran for attorney general; in 2020, he ran for Congress; and in 2021, he was one of the organizers behind the recall effort against Gov. Gavin Newsom. None of those efforts were successful, except that they helped the Los Angeles lawyer endear himself to the base. The question that still remains unanswered as the ballot tally continues: Is the base enough?
It’s clear what Bonta thinks. His campaign and his backers spent more than $1 million to “oppose” Early, presumably their preferred candidate, while also elevating his profile with voters. That’s a familiar electoral ploy in California.
What seems clear is that Schubert probably won’t be getting a promotion to statewide prosecutor. Not this year, anyway. A former Republican who became a political independent in 2018, her campaign embodied the idea that center-right politics can still play in California — so long as it’s divorced from the deeply unpopular Republican brand. She isn’t the first “no party preference” candidate to try. Now, she appears likely to join the ranks of those who failed.
The conventional wisdom turned out to be true: Republican Lanhee Chen and one of four Democrats would advance to the general election for state controller — one of the more contested statewide races in the primary.
Chen, the sole Republican in the race, earned widespread support from the GOP, as well as endorsements from several major newspaper editorial boards. No Republican has won statewide office since 2006, but he had 37% of the vote in unofficial returns as of early Wednesday.
In a statement, Chen said: “To win in November will require an effort that hasn’t been seen in our state for a long time.”
That left four Democrats vying for the second spot: State Board of Equalization Chairperson Malia Cohen, state Sen. Steve Glazer, Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin and Monterey Park City Councilmember Yvonne Yiu.
In the count, Cohen had 21%, Yiu had 16% and Glazer had 11%.
Yiu, a former financial advisor, raised the most funds by far — but only because she put nearly $6 million of her own money into the campaign. The California Chamber of Commerce backed Glazer, while labor groups spent big for Cohen, who is seeking to become only the second Black woman elected statewide.
Other statewide races
Even as the coronavirus pandemic unleashed a wave of parent frustration and political organizing over school closures, California’s top education official largely escaped their ire. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond ran a quiet campaign for re-election, with teachers’ unions spending heavily on his behalf and the charter school advocates who fiercely opposed him four years ago forgoing a rematch. As of early Wednesday, Thurmond had 46% of the vote — just short of enough to win outright in the only nonpartisan statewide contest on the ballot. His closest competitors — teacher Ainye E. Long, software architect George Yang and education policy executive Lance Ray Christensen — each had received about 11% of the vote.
Democratic incumbents in four other statewide offices remain well-positioned coming out of the primary:
- U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, who was appointed by Newsom in 2020 after Kamala Harris was elected vice president, is simultaneously running in a special election to finish her term and for a full six-year term. He was far ahead of the competition in both races in unofficial returns — about 54% of the vote in each — and will face Republican constitutional attorney Mark Meuser in runoffs for each in November.
- Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis had 52% in unofficial returns early Wednesday and is expected to face Republican Angela Underwood Jacobs, a bank executive and Lancaster City Council member, who received 19%.
- Secretary of State Shirley Weber earned 59% in unofficial returns and will face Republican tech consulting firm executive Robert Bernosky, who won about 19%.
- Treasurer Fiona Ma received 59% in the unofficial returns. Republican certified public accountant Jack Guerrero was in second with 21%.
Californians may not be used to hearing this, but our votes actually do matter for national politics this year. With Democrats desperate to hold on to their sliver-thin majority in the House of Representatives, some of the most competitive toss-up races in the country are to be found in the Central Valley, Orange County and the northern suburbs of both Los Angeles and San Diego.
But most of the state’s districts are not toss-ups. While an incumbent lawmaker will be defending their turf in most of these races, it’s an open field by historic standards. This year, six members of California’s delegation either opted not to seek reelection or left early. That, along with new congressional districts, has injected even more uncertainty into a very uncertain election year.
Across California’s congressional races, it appears to be a good primary for current and former California Assembly members.
- In a Sierra congressional district, Republican Assemblyman Kevin Kiley seems to have trounced Sacramento Sheriff and fellow Republican Scott Jones for the right to take on the top vote-getter, Democrat Kermit Jones. (That Donald Trump endorsement probably helped Kiley).
- Democratic Assemblymembers Adam Gray and Kevin Mullin are holding comfortable first-place finishes in their respective congressional bids. And Democrat Rudy Salas is the top vote-getter in his Central Valley race against Republican David Valadao — even if the combined vote share of the GOP candidates forecasts a difficult race for the Democrat in November.
- Rep. Young Kim, a former Assemblymember, was coming in second against Democratic opponent Asif Mahmood in her Orange County district. With a little help from GOP House leader Kevin McCarthy, she fended off a challenge from the right in Greg Raths. And Democrat Christy Smith, also a former Assemblymember, will once again challenge Republican Rep. Mike Garcia, among the most vulnerable incumbents in the country, for his northern Los Angeles County seat. Another Democratic candidate, Quaye Quartey, scored some high-profile endorsements, but was at a mere 6% in unofficial returns.
- An apparent exception to the rule of lucky Assemblymembers: Cristina Garcia. The progressive legislator was hoping to face off against Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia (no relation) in November. The current vote totals make that highly unlikely. Mayor Garcia has 45% of the vote as of early Wednesday. Republican activist John Briscoe holds second place with 29%, well ahead of Assemblymember Garcia with 13%.
- Another potential surprise: As of Wednesday morning, Inland Empire Republican Rep. Ken Calvert, who was redrawn into a much more Democratic-friendly district, was at 40% of the vote — enough to put him in first place, but behind the combined vote total of the Democratic candidates. That’s a flashing warning sign for November when he will likely face off against Democratic prosecutor Will Rollins.
The California Legislature is in the middle of an exodus this year. The combination of term limits, new districts and electoral opportunities elsewhere has resulted in 26 members of the Assembly and Senate departing the state Capitol by year’s end. Not that any of this poses much of a threat to Democratic dominance of both chambers. Democrats control roughly three in four seats in both the Senate and Assembly.
But not all Democrats are alike. That’s why some of the most fiercely contested races are in solidly blue bastions in Sacramento, the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego, where labor-backed progressives are facing off against more business-friendly moderates.
With legislative races getting whittled down to just the top two, many seemed to go as expected. Two Sacramento Democrats seeking a state Senate seat, Angelique Ashby and Dave Jones, the joint beneficiaries of more outside political spending than any other two candidates in the state, are set to face one another again in November. Likewise, the two well-financed Democrats Aisha Wahab and Lily Mei are likely to progress to November in an East Bay Senate race. And across the state, incumbents and party-backed favorites tended to perform well.
But, with the caveat that votes are still being tallied, there were a few big surprises as well:
- Possible Sierra shutout: In a Sierra state Senate district, one of the few “safe” seats for the GOP, the surplus of Republican candidates seems to have cannibalized the conservative vote, leaving two Democrats, labor leader Tim Robertson and public school administrator Marie Alvarado-Gil, in the top two spots
- Hertzberg triumphant: Daniel Hertzberg, son of Sen. Bob Hertzberg, has a healthy lead in a San Fernando Valley Senate seat. His chief Democratic challenger, Caroline Menjivar, is in third, behind long-shot Republican Ely De La Cruz Ayao.
- Realtors strike out: Democratic Socialist Alex Lee was among the top targets of opposition spending (virtually all it coming from the Realtors and the landlord lobby). It didn’t seem to hurt him much: As of early Wednesday, the San Jose Assemblymember had 40% of the vote.
- QAnon candidate: And while Diane Papan is doing exceedingly well in the Assembly race to take Kevin Mullin’s old seat, her progressive Democratic challenger Giselle Hale was running two percentage points behind the Republican, Mark Gilham. The surprise? Gilham is a fan of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
- San Diego and Inglewood, two ways: In two of the most sharply contested open Assembly seats, voters were asked to cast their ballots twice: First to serve out the rest of the absent legislator’s term, the second to join the Legislature in 2023. In San Diego, Democrat David Alvarez was more than 10 percentage points ahead of his progressive challenger Georgette Gomez in the special runoff to serve out the remainder of the term following the departure of Lorena Gonzalez. But in the contest to serve the full-term, Gómez leads Alvarez, plus two Republicans. That’s probably bad news for Gómez who will likely face Alvarez again, one-on-one, in November. The opposite seems to be the case in Inglewood, where progressive favorite Tina McKinnor is trailing Robert Pullen-Miles in the primary, but beating him one-on-one in the special.
- There can only be one: Republican Assemblymembers Tom Lackey and Thurston “Smitty” Smith caught some bad luck late last year when the state redistricting commission drew them both into the same High Desert district. The two are neck-and-neck, setting up an intra-party head-to-head in November.