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Politics & Government

California primary results: Dahle will face Newsom in November. Other statewide races are less certain

Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
A voter casts their ballot at a voting site at the California Museum in downtown Sacramento on June 7, 2022.

The polls are closed, but remember: In California elections, that's 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 today’s 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?

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.

Governor: Newsom vs. Dahle in November

Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
Gov. Gavin Newsom casts his ballot at a voting site at the California Museum in downtown Sacramento on June 7, 2022.

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 58% of the vote in partial 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 16% 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 far behind in fourth with 3%.

He trailed Republican management consultant Jenny Rae Le Roux, who had nearly 4% of the vote.

Attorney General: Incumbent Bonta, but which Republican?

Karl Mondon
Bay Area News Group
California Attorney General Rob Bonta speaks to abortion rights demonstrators gathered at the Philip Burton Federal Building on May 3, 2022, in San Francisco protesting Monday’s leaked draft opinion that the Supreme Court has potentially voted to overturn Roe V. Wade.

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 partial returns put Bonta far ahead of the pack, with 56% of the vote. Vying for second place are Republican Nathan Hochman with 18% and Republican Eric Early with 16%. Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert was trailing with 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.

Controller: Republican Chen, but which Democrat?

Martin do Nascimento
Lanhee Chen, candidate for controller, gives at interview at CalMatters in Sacramento on April 5, 2022.

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 36% of the vote in partial 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 partial returns, Cohen had 22%, Yiu had 16% and Steve Glazer had 12%.

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.

Insurance commissioner: Lara and Levine battle on

Max Whittaker and Anne Wernikoff
Ricardo Lara (left) and Marc Levine are candidates for Insurance Commissioner.

An already nasty fight between incumbent Ricardo Lara and state Assemblymember Marc Levine to be insurance commissioner appears likely to continue into the November general election.

In partial returns as of early Wednesday, Lara had the first spot in hand with 38%. Levine had 17%, followed closely by Republicans Robert Howell at nearly 17% and Greg Conlon at 16%.

Still, Levine said he was “cautiously optimistic” about advancing to the general election. “That would be a huge thing,” he said in a statement late Tuesday night. “We came out of nowhere in this race and took on an entrenched incumbent.”

Lara came under fire during his term for accepting campaign donations from the insurance industry after pledging the opposite, and for renting a second residence in Sacramento at taxpayers’ expense. Levine, who has the support of major newspaper editorial boards, also accused Lara of not doing enough to protect homeowners in wildfire areas from losing their coverage.

Despite all that, Lara, California’s first openly gay statewide elected official, has the endorsements of the state Democratic Party, its elected statewide leaders and Democratic-friendly groups, including firefighters, nurses and teachers. Lara’s campaign has criticized Levine’s voting record on labor issues. Their two campaigns raised far more than the other candidates.

Other statewide races: Democratic incumbents move on

Axel Koester
Bay Area News Group
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, center, visits Monte Vista Elementary School to meet the staff working for LA’s BEST summer learning program in Los Angeles on Friday, July 23, 2021.

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. With three-fourths of precincts reporting early Wednesday, Thurmond had 47% 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 and software architect George Yang, 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 partial returns — about 55% of the vote in each — and will face Republican constitutional attorney Mark Meuser in runoffs for each in November.
  • Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis had 54% in partial 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 60% in the partial returns and will likely face Republican tech consulting firm executive Robert Bernosky, who won about 19%.
  • Treasurer Fiona Ma received 59% in the partial returns. Republican certified public accountant Jack Guerrero, at 21%, and Republican Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do, at nearly 18%, were running close for second.

U.S. House: The Assembly rules

Bing Guan
Rep. Michelle Steel talks to her team while canvassing for registered Republican voters ahead of the primary for the new 45th Congressional district in Buena Park on May 28, 2022.

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 Scott Jones for the right to take on Democrat Kermit Jones. (The Donald Trump endorsement probably helped).

Democratic Assemblymembers Adam Gray and Kevin Mullin are holding comfortable first-place finishes in their respective congressional bids. And Democrat Rudy Salas is almost certain to be 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, will likely come 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 Garica, among the most vulnerable incumbents in the country. Another Democratic candidate, Quaye Quartey, scored some high-profile endorsements, but was at a mere 7% of the vote to Garcia’s 43% and Smith’s 41% in early 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 nearly 50% of the vote. Republican activist John Briscoe holds second place with 24%, well ahead of Assemblymember Garcia with 13%.

Another potential surprise: In early returns, 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.

Legislature: Incumbents dominate, but some surprises

Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
Lawmakers on the Assembly floor at the state Capitol on May 31, 2022.

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 holding on to second place — but only barely. 
  • 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 late Tuesday night, the San Jose Assemblymember had 41% 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. This election, fortune (and the voters) seem to have smiled on Lackey, who was holding the second place spot to challenge Democrat Rita Ramirez Dean.

Local races: San Francisco DA recalled

Fred Greaves
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin speaks in support of Senate Bill 1228, which will prevent police from retaining DNA from rape kits to be used to incriminate victims on April 26, 2022. From left, he was joined at the podium by Dr. Sarah Metz, Cristine Soto DeBerry and Senator Nancy Skinner.

The most expensive race in California isn’t anywhere near the top of the ticket: It’s the mayoral contest in Los Angeles, where the billionaire developer Rick Caruso has poured nearly $40 million of his own money into a bid to lead the state’s largest city. Caruso is locked in a contentious campaign against Rep. Karen Bass, who would be the first woman and second Black mayor of Los Angeles, that has revolved around crime, homelessness and Caruso’s past registration as a Republican. The two Democrats appear to be headed for a runoff in November, with Caruso leading Bass slightly in early returns Tuesday night, 41%-38%.

Angelenos will also decide whether to grant a second term to Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. After rallying Democratic voters four years ago to defeat the incumbent, Villanueva disappointed many by pivoting to become a brash, tough-on-crime conservative who makes frequent appearances on Fox News and has become enmeshed in numerous corruption scandals in his department. He seemed to pay for it Tuesday night, with only 31% of the vote in early returns, but will likely advance to a runoff against former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna.

In San Francisco, District Attorney Chesa Boudin was recalled in another closely-watched race that could have broader implications for criminal justice policy in California. Elected in 2019, the former public defender promised to increase accountability for police misconduct and shift away from incarceration for low-level offenses. But rising anxiety over property crimes and anti-Asian American hate crimes, as well as major funding from conservative donors, fueled a campaign to remove Boudin from office before the end of his term. About 60% of voters ousted him. Two of Boudin’s allies in the “progressive prosecutor” movement, Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton and San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar, also face robust challenges to oust them backed by local law enforcement.

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.