Close finish in California controller’s race creates outside chance of all-Republican runoff

The November lineup in the race to be California’s next controller remained unknown Wednesday as four candidates finished within 3 percentage points of each other, while fall contests for secretary of state, attorney general and other statewide contests fell into place with little drama.

With all precincts reporting, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, a Republican, led in the controller’s contest with 24.4 percent of the vote. A trio of candidates bunched up for the second spot: Assemblyman John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles, with 21.7 percent of the vote; Republican businessman David Evans with 21.6 percent; and Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, a Democrat, with 21.5 percent.

Wednesday, the candidates or their representatives said their participation in the November runoff could be secured after officials process hundreds of thousands of uncounted provisional and mail ballots. Election officials are still tallying the exact number.

Parke Skelton, Yee’s consultant, said he estimates that there are more than a half a million uncounted mail ballots, with about one-quarter of them in Los Angeles County, where Pérez ran strongly. Northern California, where Yee did better, traditionally has higher vote-by-mail rates. “I think she has a real legitimate shot,” Skelton said of Yee’s getting the second slot, noting that she led Pérez among mail ballots that had been received before Tuesday.

Douglas Herman, an adviser to Pérez, said the campaign is confident that Pérez’s steady gains Tuesday evening will continue and he will advance to the runoff. Pérez ran more than $1.5 million in television ads during the campaign’s final days, the only candidate for the post to take to the TV airwaves.

“Based on the trends from last night’s elections returns, John was continuing to grow and perform better as the night wore on,” he said.

Tim Clark from the Swearengin campaign said she will be in the runoff. The biggest question, Clark said, is whether Swearengin, a top GOP recruit, will face a Democrat – either Pérez or Yee – or Evans, a fellow Republican who did much better than anyone expected Tuesday.

Evans, a businessman from remote California City, was not included in campaign or public pre-election polls. He raised and spent so little money that he didn’t meet the threshold requiring him to file campaign-finance reports electronically.

But Evans had a favorable ballot designation: “chief financial officer.” He also had run for controller before, in 2010, getting almost 40 percent of the vote in a second-place finish behind then-state Sen. Tony Strickland in the Republican primary. That paid off, Evans said Wednesday, saying his strong showing outside of Swearengin’s San Joaquin Valley base should not have surprised people.

“We did well (in 2010) and did well now,” Evans said Wednesday, adding that if he had reduced Swearengin’s 50,000-vote lead in Los Angeles County, “I would be sitting here in the No. 2 slot, no doubt.”

In the other crowded race on Tuesday’s ballot, state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, and Republican Pete Peterson, an institute director at Pepperdine University, cruised to first-and-second finishes in the eight-candidate field to succeed incumbent Debra Bowen.

Peterson described himself as the underdog, calling the race “David vs. Goliath.” “As I see it, the race is really going to focus on the message that I’ve been trying to build on through the campaign. This is my dream job; others see it as a stepping stone,” he said, referring to Padilla. The senator was unavailable for comment.

Finishing third – charges of corruption and gun-running conspiracy notwithstanding – was state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, who received almost 10 percent of the vote for secretary of state. That same share held in and around Yee’s San Francisco-based district, where there has been heavy media coverage of his arrest, indictment and suspension from the state Senate.

Peterson called the support for Leland Yee “an alarming result.”

“Maybe some of those folks were being ironic, I don’t know,” Peterson said. “But in some ways it is an indictment of the work we’re trying to do to improve civic education.”

Finishing behind Leland Yee was former Republican strategist-turned-independent Dan Schnur, whose campaign focused on a Capitol “culture of corruption” he said Yee and others embodied. In a message posted on Facebook, Schnur thanked supporters and took credit for transforming “the Secretary of State’s race into a discussion about how to fix a broken system of politics. Be proud of a good first step, and let’s keep talking about how to make politics work again.”

Attorney General Kamala Harris will face off against one of two Republicans: retired state prosecutor Ronald Gold of Woodland Hills or former lawmaker Phil Wyman.

Other statewide contests this fall largely will be reruns of Tuesday’s election. Democratic incumbent Gavin Newsom will face former state GOP chairman Ron Nehring and Controller John Chiang, making a bid to move several blocks down Capitol Mall to the treasurer’s office, will face Republican Greg Conlon, an Atherton businessman. Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, a Democrat, will run against his former legislative colleague, state Sen. Ted Gaines, R-Roseville.

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