Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Peterson may have best shot at GOP win this year

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

If Republicans have any chance this year of winning statewide office in this blue state, it probably rests on the shoulders of Pete Peterson, who’s running for secretary of state, or Ashley Swearengin, the GOP candidate for state controller.

That said, the odds against Swearengin, the mayor of Fresno, lengthened when Betty Yee, a member of the Board of Equalization, bested John A. Pérez, the former speaker of the Assembly, in a June primary duel that it took a partial vote recount to resolve.

Pérez would have been weighed down by an unpopular Legislature while Yee, it would appear, doesn’t have political baggage to carry. Against Pérez, Swearengin might have gained an edge among women voters, but that vanishes in a contest with Yee.

A recent Field Poll indicates the steep hill that Swearengin must climb, trailing Yee by a 46 percent to 32 percent margin. She’s also trailing in campaign money – and Yee this week took her campaign to Fresno, criticizing Swearengin’s management of the city.

Peterson, executive director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University, trails the Democratic candidate, state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, in the Field Poll as well, but by much lesser margin, 43 percent to 36 percent.

Peterson’s background in technology and as an advocate for civic engagement seems to fit the secretary of state’s position well, the lackluster performance of termed-out Democratic incumbent Debra Bowen provides campaign ammunition, and he’s picked up some potent editorial endorsements, including one from Padilla’s hometown newspaper, the Los Angeles Times.

Finally, as a Republican, Peterson could benefit from what likely will be an extraordinarily low voter turnout for the Nov. 4 election, following the record-low primary turnout in June – ironically, since he says that if elected, raising participation would be a priority.

However, Peterson has not, at least yet, attracted the campaign funds to counter Padilla’s demonstrated ability to raise big money, especially from unions.

Thursday, during a very polite “conversation” that the Public Policy Institute of California sponsored, Peterson held his own with Padilla on the issues that have plagued the Secretary of State’s Office during Bowen’s reign, such as embarrassingly clunky systems for reporting campaign contributions and registering new businesses.

There were no yawning differences between the two, with both pledging to overhaul the office’s obvious problems by making technological upgrades. “We’re going to agree a lot,” Padilla said at one point.

If they agree a lot, therefore, the outcome may hinge on other factors, such as campaign funds and voter turnout. Padilla remains the favorite, but Peterson does have at least an outside chance.