Senate District 16: Updated vote count means runoff likely for Vidak, Perez

The Fresno BeeMay 24, 2013 

Hanford Republican Andy Vidak, left, and Bakersfield Democrat Leticia Perez are the leading candidates to fill the state State District 16 seat. The election is Tuesday, May 21.

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In a stunning turnaround that caught the Valley political world completely off guard, Hanford Republican Andy Vidak -- the apparent winner in a 16th state Senate District special election -- will now likely face a runoff.

Vidak will still win the election, which was held Tuesday. But he had to win more than 50% of the vote to avoid a July 23 runoff against the second-place finisher, Bakersfield Democrat Leticia Perez.

The day after the election to replace Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio -- who resigned in November -- Vidak had almost 52% of the vote to Perez's 41.7%. Three other candidates split the remaining 6.3%.

Perez quickly conceded. She and the other three candidates would have had to win around two-thirds of the remaining absentee and provisional ballots in the district, which covers all of Kings and parts of Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties, to force a runoff.

It was a task seen as all but impossible -- but that's exactly what happened.

On Friday, the new count showed Vidak at 49.8%, Perez at 43.8% and Francisco "Frank" Ramirez, Paulina Miranda and Mohammad Arif splitting the remaining 6.4%.

"I was flabbergasted," Stan Harper, a Bakersfield-based Republican political consultant, said of the 11th-hour turnaround. "As the old saying goes, it's not over until the fat lady sings."

How it happened may never be known for certain, said Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth, but she said there's likely two primary reasons: First, Perez or the other three candidates won an exceedingly large number of late absentee votes that were turned in to the polls on Election Day, and second, the same sort of vote breakdown happened with voters who cast provisional ballots.

Provisional ballots are cast by voters who go to the wrong polling location or have other issues that bring into question whether they can legally cast a ballot.

For Vidak to avoid a runoff, he now must win almost all of the remaining ballots left to be counted. Fresno and Kern counties are essentially finished, with just some write-in ballots to check and then canvassing, which could change a vote here or there.

Kings County has 135 provisional votes left to count, and Tulare County around 170 provisionals.

Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican strategist and author of the California Target Book, said the estimates he's heard are that Vidak is around 211 votes short of the 50% threshold.

With the turnaround, Perez -- who even in mid-afternoon Friday was skeptical that a runoff was possible -- announced she was restarting her campaign.

"I am grateful that the will of the voters is that Mr. Vidak and I get to challenge each other directly so there can be a clear choice," she said in a written statement. "I hope Mr. Vidak will accept my invitation to debate the issues in all four counties of the district so that voters will have a chance to compare our visions for the future.

"In the meantime, I look forward to continue knocking on as many doors as possible so that I can personally meet voters and have a dialogue with them."

Vidak didn't immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

Tony Quinn, a longtime political analyst and former Republican legislative aide, said evidence that Vidak's lead was in trouble began to emerge Thursday, when Kern County updated its vote count.

At that point, a vote total that everyone figured would stay above 50% -- thus avoiding a runoff -- slipped precipitously. Still, Republicans were optimistic because around two-thirds of Fresno County's Friday vote update would have to go against Vidak.

And that's exactly what happened, Quinn said.

It's indicative of an apparent new trend, he said.

In the past, voting trends in provisional and late absentee ballots usually mirrored the trends established in ballot-box and earlier absentee votes. In other words, if Vidak won 51% of the vote in the early voting and on election night, he probably would win about the same in the later counts.

But last November, Quinn said, Republicans were way ahead in early returns in a Stockton-area state Senate seat and an Antelope Valley Assembly race. After late absentees and provisionals were counted, Democrats prevailed in both races.

At the time, Quinn said, he chalked it up to a one-time aberration, likely tied to President Barack Obama's re-election campaign.

Harper, the Bakersfield political consultant, pointed out that most pundits had said a runoff in the 16th Senate District was likely. Vidak's apparent outright win was unexpected, he said.

In that respect, Harper said, a runoff isn't that surprising.

The turnaround also makes Vidak's election night comments look prophetic.

Remembering the initial lead he enjoyed in a tough -- but ultimately unsuccessful -- 2010 congressional challenge of incumbent Democrat Rep. Jim Costa, Vidak initially preferred to be "cautiously optimistic."

"I'm thinking," he said on election night, "I've been through this before."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, jellis@fresnobee.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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