Political Notebook

Competitive state GOP primary could energize Valley races

Donald Trump has shaken up the Republican presidential primary, but there are still three others seeking the GOP nomination – raising the possibility that California’s June 7 primary election could help decide the nominee. If that happens, Republican turnout could surge, with Trump as a flashpoint. Here an audience member raises a sign as Trump speaks during a November rally in Iowa.
Donald Trump has shaken up the Republican presidential primary, but there are still three others seeking the GOP nomination – raising the possibility that California’s June 7 primary election could help decide the nominee. If that happens, Republican turnout could surge, with Trump as a flashpoint. Here an audience member raises a sign as Trump speaks during a November rally in Iowa. Associated Press file

The battle for the Republican presidential nomination is pitched, brutal, ugly and, at least at this point, showing no signs of reaching a conclusion anytime soon.

Businessman Donald Trump has the most delegates, is the front-runner and is increasingly considered the presumed nominee. But at least for the moment, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich show no signs of dropping out of the race, and establishment Republicans are ramping up efforts to oust Trump or maybe force a brokered GOP convention in late July.

Together, it’s raising the very real possibility that the contest could still be going June 7 when California voters go to the polls. And that could push turnout for the primary election – especially among Republicans – to heights unseen in a long time.

That, in turn, will have a huge effect on other races, including the Fresno mayor’s race and the competition for two Fresno County supervisor seats, among others.

“If it comes to California, we will see a primary electorate (turnout) that neither party has seen in more than a decade – and all bets are off,” said Sacramento political consultant Tim Clark, who ran Ashley Swearengin’s two successful mayoral campaigns.

In the Fresno mayor’s race, City Councilman Lee Brand, Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea and community leader H. Spees are seeking to replace Swearengin, who is reaching her term limit. Brand and Spees are Republicans. Perea is a Democrat.

In the battle to replace the retiring Debbie Poochigian on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, both Clovis Councilman Nathan Magsig and businessman Alex Ott are Republicans. Three are vying to replace Perea on the board: Fresno City Councilman Sal Quintero and former City Councilman Dan Ronquillo, both Democrats; and Republican Tony Gastelum.

While these races are nonpartisan, voters recognize the difference, and candidates will often campaign on themes aligned to their party philosophy.

The conventional wisdom is a competitive GOP primary would benefit Republican candidates. One big reason is the Republican presidential primary is only open to registered Republicans, and they appear highly motivated thus far. On the other hand, a voter registered with no political party who hated Trump couldn’t vote against the New York real estate magnate in the Republican primary. Neither could a Democrat.

If Hillary Clinton already has the Democratic presidential nomination wrapped up over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, what motivation is there for Democrats to go to the polls in the primary?

Could that help Brand and Spees? Any candidate who can win 50 percent of the vote plus one in the primary election is declared the winner, and there is no runoff between the top two finishers. Could a higher turnout stop Perea from reaching the 50 percent plateau in the primary?

In the race for Perea’s supervisor seat, could Gastelum see an uptick in votes? What would it do to the presumed showdown between Ronquillo and Quintero?

But even if it is a Republican surge, there is still a question of who among these voters would be most motivated: The angry outsider who hasn’t voted in years? Those who want anybody but Trump? The dedicated conservative who is loyal to Cruz?

“You have to know what voter you are going after to tailor your message,” said Lisa Ott, who is running Spees’ mayoral campaign, and also is married to Alex Ott.

In a strange election year such as this, that might not be easy.

Ott said instinct tells her that a turnout surge would be more conservative and anti-Trump. But Trump seems to be motivating disaffected voters who have disconnected from the system.

Fresno political consultant Tim Orman, who is running Brand’s mayoral campaign, Magsig’s supervisor campaign and the Fresno City Council District 6 campaign of Jeremy Pearce, said he’ll have to “adjust his universe” for campaign mail and precinct walkers and door-hanger brochures if the GOP presidential campaign is still active June 7.

“I always go deep into Republicans,” he said. “Maybe I’ll go a little deeper.”

Don’t even count out Perea seeking Republican votes in the mayor’s race. “Republicans, independents, Democrats,” he said. “We’re talking everybody.”

The forgotten state

In most presidential elections, California plays no role in picking a party’s nominee – either Republican or Democrat. By June, the nominee has been decided, and California is treated like a victory lap more than an election.

“California hasn’t mattered in decades,” said Jack Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College government professor. “Here in this state we only see candidates on their way to fundraising events.”

The state tried moving its primary election up or splitting it – holding an early one for presidential races and the regular one in June. By 2012, state leaders seemed to accept the state’s fate as one of the final states to hold a primary election.

Turnout that year was barely above 31 percent.

Clark, Swearengin’s consultant, is preparing for the possibility that turnout could top 50 percent overall and maybe even top 60 percent for Republicans. That works on the assumption that Clinton will have wrapped up the Democratic Party presidential nomination.

“So far, the turnout momentum is on the Republican side,” Stanford University political scientist Bruce Cain said.

Across the nation on Super Tuesday, Republicans were shattering voting turnout records.

The Oklahoma elections board tweeted that Republicans had 459,500 total votes, breaking the old record of 417,000, which was set by the Democrats in 2008. Cruz ended up winning Oklahoma.

Whether or not California truly is contested by Republicans could be decided March 15 when Florida and Ohio, among other states, hold their primaries. Florida is Rubio’s home state, and Ohio is Kasich’s. A home-state loss might spell doom for candidates struggling to catch Trump. Cruz already has won his home state of Texas.

“If Rubio wins Florida, it definitely puts California in play,” Perea said.

California Republicans hand out delegates on a winner-take-all basis by congressional district. There are three delegates at stake in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts, so Clark predicts “hand-to-hand combat” in each district. The central San Joaquin Valley is part of five different congressional districts. Election fever could very well hit the state’s Republicans – even those in heavily Democratic San Francisco.

On the other hand, Trump could largely have the nomination wrapped up by midmonth, leaving only the possibility of a brokered Republican convention between him and a likely November showdown with Clinton.

But local campaign consultants have to plan now, working on an assumption that there will be a contested election here.

Republican turnout in the 2012 primary was 37.5 percent in Fresno County. For Democrats, it was 28.7 percent.

In 2012, turnout for the Fresno mayoral primary was 26.6 percent. In the 2008 mayoral primary, it was 31.2 percent.

Planning for a higher turnout

Might it top 50 percent in June? Many think there’s a real possibility that it could, which means a lot of new June voters.

Perea said his campaign team began planning for the possibility of a high-turnout primary a month ago. “It’s something we were already thinking about,” he said.

Perea said his gut tells him the high-propensity voter will come out in June and will take the time to look at the entire ballot and vote it. But he thinks the Trump voter is one who is frustrated with government and probably hasn’t voted in awhile. That voter, Perea said, will come to vote for Trump – but probably not bother to scan deeper on the ballot.

“They are going to the polls to make a statement for Donald Trump,” Perea said.

Clark isn’t so sure. He agreed with Perea that the disengaged voter may be motivated to re-engage because of Trump, but that person also might go through the entire ballot, looking to shake up the establishment everywhere.

“If you look at the mayor’s race, for Brand and Henry (Perea), what is against them is a lot of the turnout will not be incumbent-friendly voters,” Clark said. “Both of them have ballot titles that scream establishment.”

Maybe, he said, that helps Spees, the outsider.

The one huge advantage Perea has is he’s the only Democrat on the ballot, even though the office is nonpartisan. Brand and Spees will split the Republican vote, though in what way is unknown.

Political experts said the higher turnout will require candidates to spend more money. It takes more money to reach more voters, and that edge – at least now – goes to Brand over Spees and Perea.

The consultant’s job will be to tailor that message. Do they mail campaign brochures to the disgruntled, occasional voters? If so, what does it say? How does a candidate engage an angry, disaffected voter?

Answers to those questions could determine Poochigian’s replacement or who moves on to the November general election in the Fresno mayor’s race – Brand or Spees.

“Voting motivation is a strange thing,” Clark said. “Generally, you come to vote for something. Excitement and energy gets people off the couch.”

This year, however, there’s the angry voter – and he just might be motivated to come to the polls in June if California is still in the presidential election game.

“Donald is the only guy tapping into that,” Clark said. “Trump is bringing out a class of voter that had thrown up their hands and given up a long time ago.”