LOS ANGELES — Apathetic Democrats who didn’t bother to vote undercut party candidates in California, where Republicans eager to send an Election Day rebuke to President Barack Obama and Sacramento Democrats made their mark in key races.
Democrats hold a 2.6 million edge in voter registration and control every statewide office, but Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, was leading the field in the contest for state controller. The runoff for secretary of state will pit Democratic state Sen. Alex Padilla against Republican Pete Peterson, who were tightly bunched at the top of an eight-candidate field, unofficial returns showed Wednesday.
In the 25th Congressional District near Los Angeles, podiatric surgeon Lee Rogers, a Democrat, was stunned that he was boxed out of the November runoff by two Republicans. Voter registration in the district is nearly even between Democrats and Republicans.
“I can’t believe that … there will be no Democrat for Congress on the ballot in November,” he said in a statement. “Shocking.”
Once the home turf of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, California has become increasingly Democratic terrain as Republican registration shriveled to 28 percent of voters.
But unofficial results had Republicans savoring against-the-grain victories, although they might prove ultimately symbolic in November. Well-known Democrats such as Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris dominated, as expected. But the results in many other races again proved a political axiom: casting a ballot can make a difference.
For example, Republican Rep. David Valadeo was thought to be endangered in a farm belt district that tilts sharply Democratic. But he collected two of three votes on Tuesday, easily outdistancing his rivals.
“Democrat incumbents are on the run,” boasted a statement from the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee noted in a statement that Tuesday’s turnout was “drastically more conservative” than what’s expected in November.
Californians can be notoriously indifferent toward politics, and luring voters in nonpresidential election years is never easy.
Hundreds of thousands of late and provisional ballots were still being counted, but it appeared California was flirting with setting a record for voters staying home.
Some analysts believe only one-in-four voters cast a ballot statewide Tuesday. In Los Angeles County, home to 10 million people, only about 13 percent of voters turned out, according to projections.
“Honestly, I didn’t even know it was happening,” said Art Marcum, 42, a screenwriter from the Venice Beach neighborhood who was strolling on the boardwalk Tuesday in flip-flops and sipping coffee.
“I always associate voting with November and not with June,” added Marcum, a Democrat who hadn’t voted.
Republicans tend to be more reliable voters. Michael A. Shires, an associate professor at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy, said that as turnout dips, it tends to produce a more conservative vote. Additionally, Republicans appeared energized to make a stamp in competitive local contests, as they did in the 25th Congressional District race, while Democrats shrugged.
And the party that holds the White House historically has lost seats in elections at this point in a president’s term.
As for the generally low turnout, “the perception is that the governor’s race was a contest to see who would lose to Gov. Brown … and there was no Senate race or controversial initiative on the ballot to mobilize voters,” Shires said.
In 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that switched all citizen initiatives to the November ballot. That allows them to be decided by a far larger pool of voters, but it also deprives the primary election of the types of divisive policy fights that can drive voters to the polls.
November, when turnout increases, could be much different. In numerous cases Tuesday, the Democratic vote was divided among multiple candidates, diluting the party’s strength.
That was the case in the heavily Democratic 33rd Congressional District, a longtime stronghold for retiring Democrat Henry Waxman. The top finisher in the liberal bastion that includes Malibu and Beverly Hills was Republican Elan Carr; 10 Democrats were on the ballot.
Valadao was thought to be endangered in a San Joaquin Valley district that skews sharply Democratic. But he collected two of three votes in the agricultural heavy 21st Congressional District.
Jim Brulte, a former state senator who heads the California Republican Party, said he was encouraged by the success of Republican candidates who he said reflect the changing face of a diverse state. Among them was Rudy Mendoza, who topped the field in a state Assembly contest.
The California GOP has been in decline for more than two decades, and “that doesn’t get stopped in one election,” Brulte said. But “we are building a team that will help rebuild this party from the ground up.”