It’s been a dizzying two weeks in Fresno, with three presidential hopefuls and one former president making campaign swings through town.
There is a competitive Fresno mayor’s race and a relatively nasty council race in the city’s northeast. In a pair of central San Joaquin Valley congressional races that have been competitive in the past, two challengers are facing off to see who gets a crack at the incumbent in November.
In Tulare County, Republicans in the 26th Assembly District are busy breaking Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment not to attack fellow Republicans.
For all that, early indications are that local voters aren’t jazzed about the state’s Tuesday primary, when several important races could be decided. At least not yet.
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To the extent the Democratic primary drives turnout, their voters are most likely not going to be absentee voters.
Jeff Cummins, Fresno State political science professor
As of Friday, just 13.6 percent of voters in the city of Fresno had cast ballots. In Fresno County, it was 14.4 percent. In the Tulare County-centered 26th Assembly District, it was 11.5 percent.
The return numbers are about the same as the April special election in the 31st Assembly District, where Democrat Joaquin Arambula beat Republican Clint Olivier to fill the unexpired term of Henry T. Perea, who resigned a year early to take a job with the pharmaceutical industry. Historically, special elections post the lowest turnouts of all.
“The Republican presidential primary is effectively over, while Sanders and Clinton are still dueling it out, even though she has unofficially captured the nomination,” said Jeff Cummins, a Fresno State political science professor.
Indeed, in some ways voters may feel let down.
A month ago, business mogul Donald Trump, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz all made visits to the California Republican Party’s state convention when it looked like the state might decide the GOP presidential nomination. That fizzled a short time later when Trump won the Indiana primary, and Cruz and Kasich dropped out of the race.
At the same time, Clinton is widely assumed to be the nominee, even as she crisscrosses the state, including a Saturday night visit to Fresno, while Sanders still campaigns hard for California.
13.6 percent absentee turnout in the city of Fresno as of Friday
Also, there are only two ballot measures, which often can drive turnout if they are controversial. Some research suggests around a 2 percent turnout bump per initiative on the ballot, Cummins said.
The local initiative is Measure C, a proposed $485 million in bonds from the State Center Community College District. Cummins said neither measure is likely to drive turnout the way more divisive measures might.
Maybe voters simply are sitting on their hands, even as voting trends show a move away from Election Day and to voting in advance by mail. Already, mail ballots are outpacing the total mail-ballot returns from the 2014 primary election, when turnout was dismal across the state. In that election, 26.2 percent of voters cast ballots.
“To the extent the Democratic primary drives turnout, their voters are most likely not going to be absentee voters,” Cummins said. “We could see higher turnout more towards Election Day, which may offset what we are seeing with the early returns.”
Still, political veterans are tamping down turnout expectations. In the Fresno mayor’s race, for instance, the turnout percentage could be somewhere in the mid-20s.
It’s not that there hasn’t been political drama or compelling story lines to catch the attention of voters.
▪ In the District 6 Fresno City Council race, to replace termed-out Lee Brand, four candidates are vying: former City Council member and psychologist Garry Bredefeld; Jeremy Pearce, a professional Elvis Presley impersonator and businessman; public relations business owner Holly Carter; and Carter Pope II, a student who also manages a pizza restaurant.
During the spring Carter made plenty of campaign news. She falsely accused opponent Bredefeld of waving a “Nazi sign” while protesting a Fresno development when he was a councilman in 2000. The exchange came during a candidates forum, but the dust-up stayed in the news for days as Carter tried to explain herself while trying to turn the blame to Bredefeld and cast him as anti-business.
▪ In the 26th Assembly District, Tulare Republican Rep. Devin Nunes is going full bore after incumbent freshman Devon Mathis, while supporting his staffer, Woodlake Mayor Rudy Mendoza. Both Mendoza and Mathis are Republicans.
Two years ago, Mathis pulled off an unlikely victory over Mendoza. This time around, Nunes is helping Mendoza through an independent expenditure committee known as Republicans for Lower Taxes 2016, Supporting Rudy Mendoza for Assembly District 26. Nunes has given $300,000 to the group, which is just about every dollar it has raised. The latest contribution – $100,000 from Nunes’ campaign committee – was on Friday.
▪ In the Fresno mayor’s race, Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea twice in slate mailers claimed the endorsement of Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, even though he didn’t have it. Perea apologized for the gaffes.
Then, at a business event for candidate H. Spees, former Fresno Mayor Alan Autry went off on current Mayor Ashley Swearengin and, by proxy, Brand, who is also a mayoral candidate.
Autry said he left the city with a good bond rating and a budget surplus, but Swearengin burned through it so she wouldn’t have to give raises to police and could better sell Measure G, her plan to privatize residential trash hauling. Autry also criticized her for paying off internal city loans at a time when Fresno was losing police positions.
Swearengin didn’t respond, but Brand said Autry was off base and that any budget surplus he left was a fallacy. In reality, he said, Autry left Swearengin with a massive budget deficit that required years of work to clean up – and to stave off bankruptcy.
▪ In the 21st Congressional District, Bakersfield Democrat Emilio Huerta, son of United Farm Workers founder Dolores Huerta, and Fowler Democrat Daniel Parra are running against incumbent Hanford Republican David Valadao.
Only two of the three will emerge, which likely means either Huerta or Parra will lose. The other will challenge Valadao in a district where Democrats hold a voter-registration edge of nearly 16 percentage points but, despite that advantage, have succumbed to Valadao the past two elections.
It’s a similar story in the 16th Congressional District, where Republicans Johnny Tacherra and David Rogers are running against incumbent Fresno Democrat Jim Costa. In 2010 and 2014, Costa barely won, giving Republicans hope they might be able to capture the district.
As with the neighboring 21st District, Costa will move on, and only Tacherra or Rogers will survive to challenge him in November.
Fresno mayoral candidates are walking precincts, working the phones and attending events.
With all that, the final weekend is here, and the candidates are making their last pushes to get out the vote.
Brand, Perea and Spees – and their supporters – are walking precincts, working the phones and attending events. And even now, both Perea and Brand are making fundraising calls and raising money.
Perea, for instance, received $4,200 each last week from the San Joaquin Valley Latino Leaders PAC and the Plumbers, Steamfitters & Refrigeration Fitters Local 393 Political Action Fund. Brand got a similar check from Cedar Avenue Recycling and Transfer Station LP and $3,000 from Assemblyman Jim Patterson, a Fresno Republican.
If turnout doesn’t pick up, experts say it isn’t so much about a candidate wooing a voter as it is about candidates and their supporters getting their supporters to the polls. It could be the difference Tuesday between winning and losing.
June 7 primary
Polls open: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Absentee ballots: Must be postmarked on or before Election Day and received in your county elections office no later than three days after Election Day. Absentee ballots can also be dropped off at a precinct on Election Day.
Where to vote: Contact your county election office