Garamendi Prevails in Low-Turnout Election

by Paul Hogarth on September 2, 2009

John Garamendi – who had abandoned his fourth run for Governor – appears headed for Congress to represent a district where he doesn’t live. Name recognition proved key in yesterday’s low-turnout special election to replace Ellen Tauscher, where the Lieutenant Governor beat three Democratic rivals in a race with little ideological difference among the major candidates. Garamendi’s residence – and the fact that he could have run in his home district against a Republican incumbent – became an issue in the race, but it was not the kind of attack that helps the candidate who makes it. State Senator Mark DeSaulnier raised it during the final weeks, and got creamed outside his home base of Contra Costa County (getting only 4% of the vote in Solano County.) With no candidate winning an outright majority, Garamendi now faces a G.O.P. rival on November 3rd – but the run-off in this blue East Bay district should be a formality. The bigger question now is who Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will appoint as Garamendi’s replacement, and if this results in a vote on the State Lands Commission to renew offshore oil drilling in California.

The special election to replace Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher began in earnest long before she resigned to take a position in the State Department. An open seat in a blue district (Democrats outnumber Republicans by 18 points) does not happen every day, and four ambitious Democrats emerged to make it a spirited race. State Senator Mark DeSaulnier had Tauscher’s blessing (along with many other top endorsements), State Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan had the backing of EMILY’s List, and Iraq War veteran Anthony Woods had a compelling biography that he hoped would inspire voters in the 10th District.

DeSaulnier was the front-runner, but then Garamendi entered the race. One consequence of term limits is that state legislators are not familiar to their constituents, so DeSaulnier could not compete with a politician who had been on the statewide ballot six times in the past 30 years. All four Democrats basically agreed on the issues – and all were to the left of Ellen Tauscher – so the race did not attract much interest with voters. With turnout on Election Day at 29% in Contra Costa County (21% in Solano), the only way Garamendi could lose was if something negative about him took hold with the electorate.

Residency Issue Failed to Bring Down Garamendi

From the outset, one problem with Garamendi was obvious – he was running in the wrong district. He had a long history in the neighboring 3rd District (where he was born and raised, and had represented in the legislature for years), and where Republican Dan Lungren came close to losing in 2008 to an unknown challenger by a few points. Garamendi appeared to be the logical choice for Democrats to pick up a red seat, but was taking the easy way out.

Garamendi’s hometown of Walnut Grove (in Sacramento County) actually straddles the two districts, and he said when entering the race that the boundary cut through his house. That was not true. But federal law only requires members of Congress to reside in their state, not their district. That’s not really a problem in a small state like Vermont (which only has one Congress member), but California and its 52 Congressional Districts expose this loophole. Under the rules, someone who lives in Los Angeles could have jumped into this East Bay race.

In a multi-candidate race, all of Garamendi’s opponents wanted to see his residence play a role – but nobody wanted to take the parting shot. DeSaulnier eventually did in the final weeks, by creating this ad. The DeSaulnier campaign must have had internal polling to show that the attack had legs, because they kept it going for the final stretch. It may have helped DeSaulnier in Contra Costa County where he was a local politician, but I believe it backfired in the rest of the district. DeSaulnier got a pitiful 4% in Solano County, contributing to his landslide defeat – despite holding Garamendi to just four points in his home county.

Did the residency attack hurt Garamendi? Probably a little, but his advantage in name recognition was so great that it could not have sunk him – no matter what his opponents tried with it. But by being the one to throw the punch, it really hurt DeSaulnier the most.

November 3rd Run-Off

Garamendi finished first with only 26% of the vote, so the race advances to a run-off in November. Under California law for special elections, the run-off is not necessarily between the top two finishers – but instead the top finishers of each political party. This creates an unfair dynamic where a special election features many Democrats (and no other serious candidates) – but only one goes ahead to a meaningless run-off with token opposition.

Here, a Republican candidate – Dave Harmer – came in second place with 20.5% (ahead of Democrats Mark DeSaulnier at 17.55%, Joan Buchanan at 12% and Anthony Woods at 8.5%), so the November election will include the top two finishers. But it is highly unlikely for Harmer to pull an upset, for several reasons. First, the district has an eighteen-point Democratic registration advantage. Second, only one-third of voters in the special election picked a Republican candidate – whereas two-thirds voted for one of the Democrats. Garamendi will have to get out the vote, but he has the wind at his back.

Much of the media coverage last night noted that we now have a run-off between the current Lieutenant Governor (Democrat John Garamendi), and the son of a former Lieutenant Governor (Republican Dave Harmer.) What they don’t tell you is that Harmer’s dad was Lieutenant Governor for only a year – in the 1970’s. It makes for good trivia, but it isn’t news.

Garamendi’s Replacement

After Garamendi wins the run-off on November 3rd, he will have to resign his post as Lieutenant Governor. Arnold Schwarzenegger will pick a successor to serve the rest of his term (which expires in 2010), subject to approval by the state legislature. It will most likely be a Republican, and some possibilities include State Senator Abel Maldonado and Assemblyman Mike Villines, or a moderate like former Congressman Tom Campbell and ex-Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.

The theory behind Maldonado is that Democrats in the state legislature would be glad to see him go – because it would result in a special election for his Central Coast district. If Democrats pick up that seat, they would have a two-thirds majority in the State Senate –which could break some of the budget logjams. But they would still be six votes short of two-thirds in the Assembly, whose Republicans would become even more obstructionist.

The theory behind Villines is that Schwarzenegger wants to reward him for bucking the right-wing Neanderthals in his caucus in February’s budget agreement. The Assembly Republicans promptly rewarded Villines by replacing him with another Minority Leader. This would open up a special election in Fresno, which is unlikely to change hands.

But the real concern about whomever Schwarzenegger appoints is how that Lieutenant Governor would vote on the State Lands Commission. The powerful body makes key decisions on the environment and public land, and only has three members – the state Controller, the Lieutenant Governor and the Governor’s Finance Director. By appointing Garamendi’s replacement, Arnold could now have the power to control two out of three votes.

This is disturbing, because the State Lands Commission came close to allowing more offshore oil drilling this year. As Lieutenant Governor, Garamendi led the fight to block Schwarzenegger’s efforts at offshore drilling – by a two-to-one vote on the Commission. Unless the state legislature takes a firm stance on Arnold’s pick for Lieutenant Governor – which means possibly voting to deny a confirmation – it could be a scary time for us.

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