It’s the final weekend before the special election in the 31st Assembly District, which means the candidates, their political parties and the independent groups running shadow campaigns for or against them have all but finished wooing voters.
Now it’s time to close the deal.
The two main candidates, Kingsburg Democrat Joaquin Arambula, an emergency room physician, and Republican Clint Olivier, a Fresno City Council member, along with their supporters and volunteers, will spend this final weekend calling people, walking precincts and making sure that voters actually cast their ballots. Arambula also is planning a Sunday Tower District rally along with newly minted Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.
For all these trappings of traditional campaigning, the battle for the 31st District has been anything but normal.
The race has been a crazy, wild and often contentious 2 1/2 -month sprint to an election that will only guarantee the winner eight months – or fewer – in office.
It’s really been nasty for a month now. Almost every day I get fliers – from both sides.
Fresno State political science professor Tom Holyoke
“It’s really been nasty for a month now,” said Fresno State political science professor Tom Holyoke, who lives in the district. “Almost every day I get fliers – from both sides.”
There’s been an endless barrage of mailings, in fact. There also has been television and radio commercials, lots of precinct walking and a half-dozen debates. It all shows that there is so much more at stake Tuesday than simply filling the remaining months of Fresno Democrat Henry T. Perea’s final Assembly term.
For Republicans, it’s the best chance in decades to steal away the 31st District, which has been in Democratic Party hands for 40 years. Taking the seat would give the GOP a key talking point in its narrative as the political party that has hit rock bottom and is now working its way back into relevance. It also would vault Olivier’s political career to the next level.
For Democrats, there is the strong desire of Rendon to start his tenure on the right foot. Losing a seat that has been in Democratic Party hands since 1976, a string of 19 straight victories, would not be a good start. If Arambula wins in his first run for public office, his name will go alongside past high-profile 31st Assembly officeholders such as Richard Lehman, Cruz Bustamante, and his own father Juan, who held the seat from 2005 to 2010.
The Democratic Party quest to recapture its two-thirds Assembly supermajority – and the Republican desire to prevent that – is also in play. All Democrats need to do is take a single seat from Republicans while holding their own to reach that plateau. Losing the 31st District would make that job much tougher.
These are reasons the battle has been so pitched. And expensive.
Arambula has raised more than $930,000 for the special election, including more than $405,000 from the state Democratic Party.
Olivier has raised close to $500,000, with the state Republican Party chipping in more than $254,000 of that total.
But that only tells part of the money story, especially for Arambula.
As of Thursday, 10 different independent groups had spent more than $700,000 to help Arambula, according to an analysis by the California Target Book, which studies elective races. Here is how the Target Book breaks it down: $410,042 that supports Arambula and $298,416 that opposes Olivier. Independent spending to help Olivier, by comparison, is less than $21,000.
All that money has bought a lot of attack ads, including ones saying Oliver doesn’t think clean air and water are basic human rights. Olivier has called the ads a smear. Arambula has had to address a 17-year-old drunken driving arrest after mailers from the state Republican Party hit mailboxes.
The campaign has also had some very pointed – and personal – attacks.
Olivier had cast himself as the only “independent” candidate in the campaign. He painted Arambula as not ready for prime time and a person who would be prisoner to the demands of Rendon and others in Democratic Party leadership, which is largely based in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Arambula scoffed at the characterization, saying Olivier wouldn’t accomplish anything in Sacramento because he will be in the minority party.
Arambula in turn often painted Olivier as derelict in his City Council duties, including on the Summerset Village Apartments crisis, where hundreds of low-income tenants were without heat or hot water late last year after PG&E shut off the gas because of safety concerns at the Fresno complex. Olivier countered that he was at the apartment complex daily – including Thanksgiving – to make sure repairs were made.
If a voter is curious about a stark, easy-to-understand difference, high-speed rail is a good place to start. Arambula supports the project, and Olivier opposes it.
For all this, the race might not be over Tuesday.
This is where the race’s third candidate, Caruthers Democrat Ted Miller, comes in. Miller has raised almost no money and is widely considered to be beyond a long shot to win the race. But that doesn’t mean he might not play spoiler. If none of the three candidates wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers advance to a June 7 runoff.
It’s long been known that Arambula and Olivier would battle for the 31st District seat. Arambula officially announced last May that he would run. Olivier followed suit in June. Both men raised money for the balance of last year. The assumption at that time was that Perea couldn’t seek re-election and would reach his term limit at the end of this year. But then Perea threw a wrench into the works when he announced in December that he would resign his seat a year early to take a job with the pharmaceutical industry.
Less than a week after Perea’s official Dec. 31 resignation, Gov. Jerry Brown announced the April 5 special election, and in an instant the campaign dynamic was changed.
Before the announcement, Arambula and Olivier were gearing up to run in the June primary and then the November general election for a full two-year term. That race, which includes Miller, is still on, but then there is Tuesday’s special election, and the possible runoff on the same day as the June primary for a full two-year term.
Absent professional polling – which isn’t cheap – anyone hoping to gauge Tuesday’s race is left to read the political tea leaves.
Will the order of the names on the ballot matter? Miller will be listed first, then Olivier, and then Arambula. It was done by random draw.
One way to predict an outcome is to make guesses based on voters who already have cast vote-by-mail ballots.
Of those who have voted, 51 percent are Democrats and 34 percent are Republicans. In addition, 23 percent are not regular voters, according to Political Data Inc., which provides voter rolls and election data to California political campaigns.
One axiom is that Republicans are more dedicated voters, and they tend to be the ones who vote early. Could these early voting numbers bode well for Arambula?
Another axiom is low voter turnout benefits Republicans, but based on early returns, Democrats are optimistic that turnout could reach and even exceed 20 percent, which is still low but reaching territory where they say any low-turnout edge that would benefit Olivier becomes negligible.
On the other hand, only 37 percent of those who have cast ballots as of Friday are Latino, a statistic Olivier supporters say is a good sign.
Republicans have brought up the 14th State Senate District as a good parallel to the 31st Assembly District. In the 14th District, Bakersfield Democrat Michael Rubio in early 2013 resigned his seat early to take a job with Chevron. The decision forced a special election in the strongly Democratic district, and Hanford Republican Andy Vidak won. He then won a full four-year term in 2014.
The two districts overlap in Fresno County, but Democrats say they are far different. Their prime exhibit is the Fresno County part of the 14th District, which is part of the 31st Assembly District. The 31st District covers half of Fresno County, and the 14th District covers 30 percent. Vidak got whipped in that part of the district in both the special election and the 2014 contest for a full term. This is another thing Democrats say bodes well for them on Tuesday.
It’s almost assured that Tuesday will be round one of a battle that likely will last until November. Arambula, Miller and Olivier will battle anew in the June primary, with the top two advancing to a November showdown to see who will represent the 31st District for the next two years. The big question is, will someone win more than 50 percent Tuesday, or will that just serve as a warmup for a June runoff?
Said Holyoke, the Fresno State political science professor: “The fun thing is we’ll probably get to do it all over again.”
31st Assembly District Voter Registration
No Party Preference: 19.87%