A little more than a year ago, Joaquin Arambula stumbled out of the political starting gate in his quest for the 31st Assembly District seat, saying he was a Democrat living in Kingsburg. At the time, he was neither. He was registered as an independent and living in Clovis.
On Tuesday, Arambula showed what a difference 13 months makes.
He put together a solid 31st District election victory that showed not only that he had matured as a candidate, but also how much a truckload of money – more than $1.6 million between Arambula’s fundraising, the state Democratic Party and outside independent groups – can help win a tough election.
Republicans, on the other hand, missed on what was probably their best chance in a long time to win the seat. It was a special election, which favors Republicans because such contests are almost always low turnout, which conventional wisdom says helps the GOP. Clint Olivier, who has good name identification after more than five years on the Fresno City Council, stepped up to challenge Arambula. The state GOP chipped in hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It all pointed to a tough challenge for the Democrats, even though they’ve held the seat since 1976.
In the end, not only did Olivier lose, but he failed to keep Arambula under 50 percent of the vote, which would have forced a June 7 runoff.
As it now stands, Arambula has 52 percent of the vote, Olivier has 42 percent and Caruthers Democrat Ted Miller has 5.7 percent. Turnout probably won’t reach 20 percent when all votes are counted.
My personal opinion is that what we saw last night was the first snapshot of how Trump plays in the Central Valley.
Rich McIntyre, Joaquin Arambula’s campaign manager
“It’s definitely an indication that (Republican) prospects for picking up the seat are pretty slim at this point,” Fresno State political science professor Jeff Cummins said. “If they can’t do it in this special election, they are not going to be able to do it in the regularly scheduled election.”
Already, Olivier seems to be questioning the wisdom of continuing his electoral battle with Arambula.
Tim Orman, his campaign consultant, said Olivier was in Monterey on Wednesday.
“He went there to spend time with his family and relax after a grueling campaign,” Orman said. “When he gets back we will sit down and talk about what the different options are, if they’re viable, and the best choice moving forward.”
Tuesday’s special election was put in motion when Fresno Democrat Henry T. Perea announced in December that he was resigning a year before the end of his term to take a job with the pharmaceutical industry.
When Perea made the announcement, Arambula and Olivier were already gearing up to face each other in the 31st District. Perea was due to reach his term limit at the end of this year.
After his unexpected resignation, Gov. Jerry Brown in early January called Tuesday’s special election, setting up an intense and often contentious three-month campaign.
Under the rules of the election, if a candidate won more than 50 percent of the vote, he would be the victor and immediately head to Sacramento to take Perea’s seat. If no candidate won 50 percent, the top two finishers would advance to a June 7 runoff.
Democrats get fierce
Olivier liked his chances to win.
He told supporters Tuesday evening at The Republican in downtown Fresno, where he held his election-night party, that this was “an opportunity to change leadership, to change representation, an opportunity to stick it to the speaker of the state Assembly, an opportunity to stick it to the special interests and the one-party rule that run this state.”
But Democrats seemed determined not to lose the seat the way they did in the 14th state Senate District, which shares some political territory with the 31st Assembly District. In the 14th, Hanford Republican Andy Vidak won a 2013 special election after Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio unexpectedly resigned to take a job with Chevron. Vidak then won a full term in 2014.
Arambula raised more than $930,000 for the AD 31 special election, including more than $405,000 from the state Democratic Party. He had 10 full-time campaign staffers, including his mom, Amy, who volunteered. He had thousands of volunteers throughout the campaign, peaking during the final weekend at between 250 and 330.
The volunteers, many from outside the area who were put up in local hotels with the state Democratic Party picking up the tab, mostly walked precincts and worked the phones.
It’s definitely an indication that (Republican) prospects for picking up the seat are pretty slim at this point.
Jeff Cummins, Fresno State political science professor
New Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon twice campaigned with Arambula and was in Fresno on Tuesday. Not only would it be a humiliation to lose a seat at the start of his tenure, but this new Assembly member will serve under new term-limit rules, which means up to 12 years total in the Assembly instead of the previous six-year cap.
In addition, 10 independent groups had combined by March 31 to spend more than $700,000 to help Arambula, according to an analysis by the California Target Book, which studies elective races.
Olivier, in turn, raised close to $500,000, with the state Republican Party chipping in more than $254,000 of that total, and almost no assists from outside groups. He had two full-time staffers and a third working part time. He also had volunteers, but not in the numbers that Democrats marshaled to help Arambula.
Rich McIntyre, Arambula’s campaign manager, said he thinks Republican presidential contender Donald Trump also played into the final outcome.
“My personal opinion is that what we saw last night was the first snapshot of how Trump plays in the Central Valley – and potentially a lot of other places,” McIntyre said.
The campaign polled on Trump, and he was viewed unfavorably by more than 60 percent of respondents, McIntyre said. A late independent campaign ad connected Trump and Olivier, and McIntyre said Olivier’s failure “to repudiate Trump in two debates energized voters, and some of those were low-propensity or first-time voters. My counsel to progressives running contested elections in this cycle is to pose the same Trump question to Republican candidates we did: ‘If Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, will you support and vote for him?’ ”
For all this, the battle for the 31st Assembly District is far from finished.
This election isn’t even over.
There are around 5,000 absentee and provisional ballots left to be counted, according to Fresno County Clerk Brandi Orth.
Arambula would have to lose close to 62 percent of the remaining ballots to fall below the 50 percent threshold and into a runoff. It would be a collapse of monumental proportions for Arambula and almost certainly won’t happen.
Orth has until April 14 to certify the election; then Arambula can be sworn in. When he takes office, Arambula, 38, will be the 10th-youngest of 80 Assembly members, according to legislative historian Alex Vassar.
Another interesting factoid from Vassar: Arambula will be the seventh current Assembly member to win his seat in a special election.
Arambula, Miller and Olivier are slated to do battle again. The same three are certified to run in the June primary election to serve a two-year 31st Assembly term beginning in December. The top two finishers in the June primary will advance to the November general election.
If Olivier is considering backing out of the June race, Republicans are counseling against it. The GOP has invested considerable time and resources into Olivier, and because of that, they say, he needs to battle to the end.
31st Assembly District