California Election Roundup: Where Hot Races Stand

Several congressional races and statewide ballot initiatives remained too close to call Friday. Here’s how some of the hottest races stack up.

Lisa Carrera, a former Los Angeles Unified School history teacher from La Puente, Calif., holds the hand of her grandson Maverick, 2, after casting her ballot in-person at the Top of the Park at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Many Initiatives Still Too Close to Call in California
GOP Sees Slight Edge in Central Valley House Race
House Seat in GOP Stronghold in Danger of Flipping Back to Red
‘Purple’ House Seat in Southern California Still Too Close to Call
Democrat, GOP Incumbent in Dead Heat for Southern California House Seat


Many Initiatives Still Too Close to Call in California

A record 22 million Californians registered to vote ahead of the November general election. While the allure of choosing the next occupant of the White House no doubt spurred many of them to the ballot box, they also had a list of initiatives to decide ranging from whether the state should go to a split-roll property tax scheme to ending the money bail system.

The bid to end cash bail failed, but here’s a look at how some of the other propositions are faring — even as the vote count continues:

Proposition 15

Ignoring pleas for budget relief from California’s cash-strapped cities and Governor Gavin Newsom, voters are on the verge of rejecting a bid to amend the state’s landmark tax code and put the squeeze on commercial landlords.  

With over 75% of the estimated total vote counted, 52% have voted no on Proposition 15 — the so-called “split-roll” bid. The proponents’ dreams of raising up to $11.5 billion in new tax revenues for schools and cities is on the ropes, as the measure faces a 426,000 vote-deficit as of Friday.

If the result holds, it would be further proof of the popularity and resiliency of a voter-approved tax scheme that is credited with preventing runaway tax bills for property owners in the Golden State for decades.

With the state facing a record $54 billion Covid-induced deficit, proponents have been trying to convince voters they could unearth a giant new revenue stream by raising taxes on commercial properties valued above $3 million. The supporters amassed a deep and influential bench featuring Newsom, former Vice President Joe Biden, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and many of the state’s largest labor unions.

Leading the fight against the tax reform are a collection of business and agricultural groups, as well as the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — named after the author of the original property tax scheme passed by voters in 1978. The opposition casts Proposition 15 as the “largest property tax increase in California history” and claimed it would send commercial rents and the cost of consumer goods skyrocketing.

In the run up to the election, the sides combined to raise a staggering $139 million on Proposition 15.

With millions of ballots left to be counted, support for the measure is strong along the coast but fades rapidly inland.

Proposition 19

California would crack down on longstanding tax breaks for inherited homes but allow older residents the ability to take their cushy property tax rates with them when they move under a closely contested ballot measure.

In a race too close to call as of Friday morning, Proposition 19 was leading by a 51-49% margin.

Backed by Newsom along with realtor and firefighter groups, Proposition 19 is meant to give seniors wishing to move within the state more flexibility. If passed, homeowners over the age of 55 — as well as those with certain disabilities and wildfire victims — could keep their property tax bill with them if they sell and move to a more expensive place. 

Supporters say the change could spur more seniors to downsize or move into retirement centers and carries the bonus of increasing housing supply.

“Prop 19 will open up tens of thousands of homes that haven’t been on the market for decades, creating opportunities for new buyers and helping to stabilize housing costs so more Californians can afford home ownership,” the supporters claim on their website.

The proposal, placed on the ballot by the Democrat-controlled Legislature, also purports to raise new revenue for local governments and fire departments, as it would increase the tax hit on in-family property transfers.

Led by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the opponents argue the change would punish those simply looking to pass on family homes to their children or grandchildren. They note a similar proposal was nixed by voters in 2018.

“This is a billion-dollar tax increase on California families,” the taxpayers association warns. “The price is too high.”

Much like the related split-roll proposal, the residential tax reform proposal has performed well in the San Francisco Bay Area as well San Diego and Ventura counties. But supporters remain on edge as the measure hasn’t run up more than 60% support in any county and there isn’t a clear result as Proposition 19 is ahead by only 336,000 votes.

Proposition 14

Two decades after greenlighting a taxpayer-funded stem cell research agency, California voters are on the verge of approving billions more to find a cure for chronic diseases and cancers.

Ahead by a 51-49% margin, Proposition 14 would allow the state to sell up to $5.5 billion in bonds to prop the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and its efforts to fight everything from Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, stroke and infectious diseases including Covid-19.

After a ban on federal funding for stem cell research during the George W. Bush administration, researchers in 2004 turned to the state ballot. They ultimately convinced voters by a 59-41% margin to create a constitutional right to study stem cell cures as well as take on $3 billion in new debt. 

Since 2004, nearly a dozen states including New York and Maryland have created similar programs but on a much smaller scale.

Now the backers seek to keep the institute afloat with another $5.5 billion infusion that could ultimately cost $7.8 billion to pay off. Supporters include Newsom, the University of California Board of Regents and the American Association for Cancer Research.

Critics countered that private stem cell research has made great strides since 2004 and that the federal funding ban was lifted under President Barack Obama. With the state mired in recession, the editorial boards of several California newspapers concluded it was bad timing for Proposition 14 and urged readers to vote no. 

The latest update from the Secretary of State shows over 50% support for Proposition 14 in coastal counties like San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco. It has effectively been shut out of the Central Valley and rural counties.

The tight race shows that California voters are cognizant of the state’s shattered finances and are not overly enthusiastic about inking new bonds during a recession, said Moylan, the UOP professor. She says though the initiative is close, the critics seem to have made a persuasive pitch. 

“People are not in the mood for bonds; they are concerned about the finances of the state and are not feeling like expenditures or committing money down the line is a great idea,” she said.

—Nick Cahill


In this Jan. 5, 2018 photo, T.J. Cox, a candidate for the 21st U.S. Congressional District, speaks at a Democratic Party debate at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto. (Andy Alfaro/Modesto Bee via AP)

GOP Sees Slight Edge in Central Valley House Race

Former California congressman David Valadao holds a slim lead in his bid to unseat Democratic incumbent T.J. Cox in a rematch of their 2018 election that flipped the GOP stronghold for Democrats and helped them win control of the House.

Valadao has 51.8% of the vote over Cox, who has 48.2%, according to California election data. Valadao leads 4,033 votes as of Friday morning.

Counting continues in the four counties that make up the 21st Congressional District — Fresno, Kern, Kings and Tulare — which has historically elected Republicans to office.

Writing on Twitter, Cox said Thursday residents in the rural region should be patient as election officials continue counting ballots. 

“This race is far from over,” Cox tweeted. “Tens of thousands of votes haven’t been counted yet and we’re doing everything in our power to make sure every voice is heard.”

In 2018, the hotly contested race was one of the seven Congressional seats targeted by Democrats after Hillary Clinton carried the district, which is dominated by the agriculture industry. 

Valadao had been declared the winner on election night in 2018 by major news outlets including The Associated Press before Cox closed a gap in the race.

When the night was over, the Central Valley congressional seat was the seventh House seat flipped by Democrats in the Golden State.

In his bid for reelection, Valadao again leaned on his background as a Latino and a son of immigrants and on his moderate stance on immigration. 

He released a campaign ad featuring an undocumented Central Valley resident who praised Valadao’s support for the DREAM Act, which in part provides a pathway to citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants.

President Donald Trump, who is deeply unpopular in California, has gone back on his word to defend so-called Dreamers, a move Valadao has sought to distance himself from.

On the campaign trail, Cox has defended his record in Congress and painted Valadao as a rubber stamp for the Trump agenda. 

Neither candidate responded to emailed requests for comment by press time.

—Martin Macias Jr.


House Seat in GOP Stronghold in Danger of Flipping Back to Red

A group of officials including member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors Michele Park Steele, from third left, Rep. Harley Rouda, Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris and Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley, at a news conference in Costa Mesa, Calif. (Mindy Schauer/The Orange County Register via AP)

In 2018, Harley Rouda did the unthinkable: He wrested Orange County’s 48th Congressional District from the hands of longtime Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher and turned the seat blue.

But the district might flip back to red this year, with GOP candidate Michelle Steel holding a healthy lead of about 5,000 votes, according to the latest count update from the Orange County Registrar of Voters. As of Friday, 175,000 votes remain uncounted.

There’s also an important caveat, because vote-by-mail ballots postmarked Nov. 3 will be accepted by the Orange County Registrar up until Nov. 20 under rules adopted by California due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Much had been made about vote-by-mail ballots and drop boxes in the weeks leading up to the election in the Golden State. The California GOP placed unofficial ballot boxes in at least three counties, including Orange County, and Rouda accused Steel of having boxes at her campaign headquarters.

A Republican sea change wouldn’t be all too surprising after a tumultuous 2020 that saw thousands of anti-mask protesters taking to the streets along coastal communities, demanding Orange County officials rescind a mask mandate implemented to slow the spread of Covid-19.

Along with her colleagues on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, Steel appointed Dr. Clayton Chau as county health officer when former health officer Dr. Nichole Quick abruptly resigned after receiving threats over the mandate.

Rouda and Steel differ greatly in their approach to the virus. Rouda criticized the county’s mishandling of testing in July that led to an artificially inflated testing percentage, while Steel has advocated for a faster reopening despite a surging case count.

Both candidates have boasted their humble beginnings as they vie to represent the 48th District.

Rouda, a former registered Republican, was a practicing lawyer in Columbus, Ohio, before becoming general counsel for his family’s real estate business.

Steel, a South Korean immigrant who arrived in the United States as a young adult, is married to Republican National Committee member Shawn Steel. He also runs a personal injury practice in Seal Beach, California.

Rouda has attempted to draw attention to his opponent’s ties to the Trump presidency. That might have been an ineffective tactic in the onetime Republican stronghold, though the latest results show former Vice President Joe Biden secured 53% of the vote in Orange County versus just 44% for President Donald Trump.

Like the presidential race, the race for Rouda’s seat is still too close to call, but the gap between the two candidates has been widening as Steel pulls ahead.

“Look, I know everyone’s anxious,” said Rouda in a video statement on Thursday. “We want to know how this race turned out, but we have to make sure that every vote is counted. So, we need to be patient, not just in this race, but across America, many races are still having votes being counted.”

—Nathan Solis


‘Purple’ House Seat in Southern California Still Too Close to Call

Congressman Gil Cisneros narrowly trails Republican Young Kim in his bid to hold onto one of the congressional seats that handed Democrats control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018.

Kim, a businesswoman and former state lawmaker, has 50.3% of the vote over Cisneros, who trails the GOP challenger by just 1,710 votes, according to California election data Friday. Hundreds of thousands of ballots, including more than 719,000 in Los Angeles County, remain outstanding, according to election officials.

The candidates are squaring off in a rematch of their 2018 election, which was initially called for Kim — who had even traveled to Washington for new member orientation — before a count of additional ballots gave the victory to Cisneros. 

Spanning Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, California’s 39th Congressional District is a firmly purple district that has been represented for years by Republicans, including longtime Congressman Ed Royce.

Democrats drew up designs to challenge Republicans for control of the district after Hillary Clinton won the majority of Orange County votes in the 2016 presidential race.

The former first lady and secretary of state was the first Democrat to carry Orange County in a presidential election since 1936. The GOP’s once-tight grip on “Orange Curtain” congressional seats had loosened.

After Royce retired — not surprising given his support for President Donald Trump’s agenda and the president’s unpopularity in the region, even among some Republicans — Democrats positioned Cisneros to run for the tri-county congressional seat.

Cisneros, a Navy veteran whose lottery win in 2010 propelled him into philanthropy and politics, was a first-time candidate who campaigned on immigration reform, support for veterans and job growth.

Two years later, Cisneros has a record in Congress marked by his support for veterans, small businesses, Dreamers, residents seeking better health care and constituents struggling during the Covid-19 pandemic. Both his Republican and Democratic constituents have criticized Cisneros for either being too moderate on some issues or siding too closely with Democratic party leaders on others.

The OC Republican Party said last December it would invest heavily in the race after Cisneros backed impeachment proceedings against Trump.

Cisneros said in a campaign statement Wednesday he expected the race would not be officially called until officials could count all ballots submitted during an unprecedented election. 

“In this unprecedented time for our country, the regular election playbook has been thrown out the window,” Cisneros said. “We must count every vote, because every voice in the 39th District matters.”

Kim, a Korean immigrant, has repeatedly criticized Trump’s policy on immigration and styled herself as an open-minded Republican who’s cognizant of the demographic change taking place in the region. 

Republican party officials told Courthouse News that Trump’s unpopularity in the district won’t hurt down-ballot candidates who reject the president’s behavior in office but support the GOP agenda locally.

Kim, a former Royce aide, has criticized Cisneros for campaigning as a moderate but siding with an agenda set by Democratic leaders in Congress.

She did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Fred Smoller, political scientist at Chapman University in Southern California, told Courthouse News he thinks the outcome of the tight race is clear: Cisneros won’t be able to close the gap and Kim will win the congressional seat.

“She’ll beat him,” Smoller said. “What we see in this race for Kim is, what I feel, a sign that Orange County is not blue or red, it’s purple and it’s competitive.”

Cisneros has proven he’s qualified to serve his constituents and will likely run for in the future if he does indeed lose the race, Smoller said.

—Martin Macias Jr.


Democrat, GOP Incumbent in Dead Heat for Southern California House Seat

Robb Rehfeld wears a mask as he walks to cast his vote during a special election for California’s 25th Congressional District seat Tuesday, May 12, 2020, in Santa Clarita, Calif. Republican Mike Garcia and Democrat Christy Smith are running for the seat after the resignation of Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

In her bid to reclaim the 25th congressional district for Democrats, California lawmaker Christy Smith was neck-and-neck Friday with incumbent Republican Mike Garcia, according to updated election data.

Both Garcia and Smith, who currently represents Santa Clarita in the California Assembly, hold 50% of the vote and are separated by less than 270 votes.

Early results Wednesday put Smith in the lead to represent the district, which includes parts of Los Angeles and Ventura counties and has historically elected moderate Republicans.

Garcia, a former Navy pilot and political newcomer, won a special election this past May to fill a congressional seat left vacant by Democrat Katie Hill who resigned in 2019 following an ethics probe of her relationship with a campaign aide.

Hill defeated Republican Steve Knight in a closely watched 2018 election, part of the “blue wave” that secured Democrats’ control of the House.

Smith also flipped a seat that year from red to blue: California’s 38th Assembly District, which covers nearly 60% of the 25th Congressional District.

Garcia, a former executive at defense-systems company Raytheon, will serve in the House until January while the candidate who wins the November general election will serve the two-year term beginning next year.

In a video posted to Twitter on Thursday, Garcia urged his supporters to track their ballots online as officials continued their vote count.

“Tell your friends, family and neighbors to get out there and make sure their voices are being counted,” Garcia says in the short video.

The incumbent rode a wave of support from the state and national Republican party to secure victory in the special election, which he said in an interview this past February was a sign voters were fed up with repeated tax increases enacted by Smith and other California Democratic leaders.

Garcia said his run for office was inspired by a “second calling to serve” after seeing Hill champion pro-immigrant policies and proposals that would raise taxes.

Since taking office, Garcia has established a voting record aligned with President Donald Trump and House Republicans on all issues. 

In her campaign, Smith criticized Garcia’s alignment with Trump even after the president downplayed the severity of the Covid-19 outbreak before it swelled into a global pandemic.

Smith is backed by prominent California Democrats and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

In support of her campaign ahead of the March primary, the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board said in Feb. 12 endorsement that Smith is the kind of level-headed, policy-focused leader the district needs at this moment.

“Smith is a centrist, pragmatic Democrat who in just a year in the Legislature has distinguished herself as an elected official more interested in pushing good policy than playing politics, something we’d like to see more often in Congress,” the board said.

In virtual press conference Tuesday evening, Smith said her campaign is at an advantage due to the larger number of registered Democrats in the district and the increased use of vote-by-mail ballots. 

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s victory over Trump in the district in the 2016 election should also signal increased voter turnout in favor of Democrats, Smith said.

Smith told reporters her focus remains on pushing for health care reforms at the national level and on increasing support for district residents and businesses struggling during the pandemic. She said her campaign will wait patiently for election officials to receive and process ballots.

California election officials said Thursday evening more than 4.5 million ballots remain unprocessed and uncounted.

The vast majority, just over 4 million, are mail-in ballots, which can be counted if received no later than 17 days after the election provided they were postmarked on or before Nov. 3.

—Martin Macias Jr.

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