As midnight approached Tuesday, Fresno mayor candidate Lee Brand’s election night party at The Cosmopolitan in downtown Fresno turned in to a victory celebration – even though victory is not yet in hand.
“Congratulations,” current Mayor Ashley Swearengin said to Brand, the person she endorsed to take her place as she reaches her term limit.
The Brand camp was celebrating because with 95 percent of precincts reporting, the current Fresno city councilman had 53.3 percent of the vote, while his opponent, Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea, had 46.5 percent. With mostly late-arriving absentee and provisional ballots left to count, Brand’s campaign team felt that his 6.9-percentage point lead would be close to impossible for Perea to close.
“We feel that’s a pretty comfortable margin, particularly based on our campaign strategy,” Brand said. “We did all the things necessary, I think, to win the campaign. I feel pretty confident. Anything is possible, but I’ve got to move forward. I’m a numbers guy, and statistically, it’s an almost impossible deficit for him to overcome now.”
Brand jumped out to an early lead in the race, when early mail ballots results were released just after the polls closed at 8 p.m. Perea, however, started chipping away at the lead as Election Day ballots were counted, cutting an initial deficit that was more than 8 percentage points down to 5.3 percentage points.
Perea could not be reached for comment early Wednesday, but earlier in the evening was hoping that Election Day voters would boost him.
“It’s not what we wanted to be, but we believe the poll voters will come in big for us,” Perea said after the initial results.
In the third update of the evening, however, Brand built his lead back to the 6.9-percentage point edge and the celebrating started among Brand’s supporters.
In raw numbers, it’s more than 5,500 votes, and with each vote counted and Brand holding a solid lead, it makes it harder for Perea to close the gap in the battle to be the fourth strong-mayor of the state’s fifth-largest city.
“I think this is going to hold up throughout the night,” Brand said after the initial vote count. “We had a strong, strong get-out-the-vote effort. We ran a strong campaign all the way through.”
Headed toward Election Day, both campaigns had been dissecting the early mail ballot returns, trying to figure out which candidate would have the early edge.
As of Monday, 45 percent of the mail ballots returned were from Democrats, 37 percent were Republicans and 18 percent were from nonpartisan or third party voters.
That looked to benefit Perea. Though the race is officially nonpartisan, he’s a Democrat, while Brand is a Republican.
On the other hand, those who voted early tended to be older, with almost 60 percent of the ballots coming from voters over 55, while only 16 percent were from those between 18 and 35 years old. Also, Latino voters make up only 23 percent of the early voting, which is 12 percent below their registration.
In addition, almost 48 percent of those who have already voted are from City Council districts 2 and 6 – the north part of city. District 6, which covers northeast Fresno, is Brand’s current council district.
All these, at least on paper, should benefit Brand – and it appears they did.
Brand and Perea initially were two of five candidates seeking to replace Swearengin. Community leader H. Spees, former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim and Richard Renteria were eliminated in the June primary.
Perea came in first in June with 44.7 percent of the vote, but he was unable to reach 50 percent, which would have given him an outright win. Brand moved on as the runner-up, winning 30.8 percent of the vote.
Brand’s move from his primary election performance to the general election was huge. While Perea so far has only improved his primary performance by around 2-percentage points, Brand improved his by more than 22-percentage points. It appears that Brand likely picked up most of the Spees and Vagim voters, who are also Republicans. Spees also endorsed Brand.
The two candidates picked at each other during the campaign, leveling various charges. What it came down to in a nutshell was each one saying the other lacked the leadership skills to be mayor.
Brand dominated the money battle, cobbling together more than $900,000 and counting – raising a total of $662,719, loaning his campaign the maximum $100,000 and transferring another $143,276 from his Fresno council.
Perea raised $620,502 and counting. That amount includes around $87,000 that he moved from his supervisor account.
Brand used that fundraising advantage to blanket the airwaves with commercials, as well as campaign mail. Perea also did campaign mail, but limited his visual media to a single television commercial.