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California’s nonpartisan race for schools chief, which pits incumbent Tom Torlakson against fellow Democrat and former charter schools executive Marshall Tuck, is shaping up as the marquee match-up of the fall ballot, according to the latest Field Poll.
The pair are in a statistical dead heat with 55 days to go before the Nov. 4 election. Tuck has 31 percent, Torlakson 28 percent and 41 percent are undecided.
The poll of likely voters was conducted over the last two weeks of August, just ahead of the Labor Day weekend, which has come to mark the unofficial start of the general election campaign season.
With Gov. Jerry Brown comfortably ahead of Republican Neel Kashkari at the top of the ticket, this year’s down-ballot races have been “a little less visible than prior cycles,” said Mark DiCamillo, director of the poll. He said the scarcity of statewide TV ads means fewer indicators that it’s nearly time to go to the polls.
“The voters are sleepwalking a bit as we approach the election,” DiCamillo said.
That’s causing somewhat predictable readings for most of the constitutional offices, many of which have not been held by a Republican in more than a decade in a state where registered Democrats far outnumber Republicans.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris and Democratic Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones all are approaching the 50-percent threshold and hold comfortable leads over Republican challengers Ron Nehring, Ron Gold and state Sen. Ted Gaines of Rocklin.
Controller John Chiang, a heavy favorite to capture the state treasurer’s office, leads GOP businessman Greg Conlin 52 percent to 26 percent.
Despite featuring one of its party’s rising stars, the controller’s race could prove difficult for Republican Ashley Swearengin. The Fresno mayor trails Democratic Board of Equalization member Betty Yee 46 percent to 32 percent, with 22 percent of the voters undecided. Yee got off to a bit of a late start after her primary opponent, former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, mounted an unsuccessful recount effort.
With Secretary of State Debra Bowen vacating the post because of term limits, the race represents perhaps the state GOP’s best chance at a statewide office. In the closest partisan contest, state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, holds a seven-percentage-point lead over Republican Pete Peterson, head of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University.
While many handicappers are again expecting Democrats to score a clean sweep, DiCamillo said, Peterson is “someone who could potentially win. The atmospherics, at least, seem to give him a shot.”
In the last comparable survey of down-ballot races, in 2006, Bowen led appointed Republican Secretary of State Bruce McPherson 38 percent to 35 percent and ended up winning the race by three percentage points. In the same poll, only Brown and Bill Lockyer, candidates well known to voters, had more than 50 percent of the vote at that point in the campaign.