SACRAMENTO — Valley lawmaker Mike Villines was so confident he’d win the GOP primary for insurance commissioner that he sent an invitation two weeks ago for a general election fundraiser featuring Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
He might have to cancel those plans.
Villines, R-Clovis, remained locked in the election fight of his life Wednesday against Brian FitzGerald, a little-known state Department of Insurance employee who barely raised campaign cash.
Villines trailed by 11,204 votes as of Wednesday, but had not yet conceded, hoping the race would swing his way as more ballots were counted.
“It is a steep hill for me to climb but we will see what the absentee ballots do,” Villines said in an e-mail. “I will be fine either way, everything happens for a reason.”
His campaign estimated that there are tens of thousands of absentee ballots left to be counted, and they remain hopeful, saying Villines fared well in absentee balloting. The result might not be known for days.
Despite a tax vote in 2009 that angered some conservatives, Villines was considered a strong favorite in the race. Still, the contest got little attention and Villines’ decision to refer to himself as an assemblyman on the ballot might have doomed him in an anti-incumbent year, one expert said.
FitzGerald, 52, whose previous election feat was being elected freshman class treasurer in high school, was not yet ready to declare victory, but said: “I guess I had better start making arrangements for the next phase.”
He said he went to bed at 11 p.m. Tuesday night thinking he was going to lose, but woke up to find out he had taken the lead.
“I’m surprised,” he said.
Villines, 43, who terms out of the Assembly this year, was seeking to become the third-ever statewide officer from the Fresno-area, after former lieutenant governor Cruz Bustamante and former Secretary of State Bill Jones.
FitzGerald, who lives in Napa, is an enforcement attorney at the insurance department, where he has worked for 16 years. He said he spent less than $5,000 on his campaign, mostly on filing fees and a round-trip airline ticket to speak to the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times, which ended up endorsing Villines.
FitzGerald’s campaign Web site was thrown together by a relative using blogging software. In an interview, he described himself as an “Eisenhower Republican,” who believes that “regulation is necessary.”
Villines raised $203,513 this year and was sitting on $227,129 that he had hoped to spend on the general election, where the Republican will likely be an underdog against the Democratic nominee, Assembly Member Dave Jones, D-Sacramento.
Villines hoped to raise more big bucks at a June 30 fundraiser featuring the governor at Clint Eastwood's Tehama Golf Club in Carmel. For the primary, he did not run radio or TV ads, instead relying on slate mailers that he paid to carry his name.
Villines spokeswoman Jennifer Gibbons said that Villines never took anything for granted. “Mike always knew it was going to be tough to reach voters and be able to tell them he was the candidate for the job.”
Villines was perhaps best known statewide for his role in 2009’s state budget deal in which he signed off on temporary tax hikes as Assembly GOP leader. He said he signed off on them to avoid permanent tax hikes, but later stepped down as leader in the face of pressure from anti-tax conservatives.
He faced some of the strongest criticism from the John & Ken Show, on KFI (AM 640) in Los Angeles, where the shock jocks routinely blasted him and the other Republicans who voted for the tax hikes. Still, Villines won endorsements from conservatives such as former governor George Deukmejian and former gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon.
The bad press from KFI might have contributed to his poor showing in Los Angeles County, where Villines was losing by 55% to 45%. He did much better in his home region, winning every San Joaquin Valley county. He was also winning in San Diego County.
Political analyst Tony Quinn said Villines’ poor showing might have more to do with ballot titles than anything else because “this election voters knew very little about these down-ballot candidates.”
Villines listed himself as “businessman/state assemblyman” while FitzGerald described himself as “department's enforcement attorney.” With the Legislature suffering low-approval ratings, Villines should have left out his Assembly title, Quinn said.
“I think that is entirely a backlash against the Legislature,” he said. “Villines should have realized that.”