It’s hard to ride a blue wave without a lot of water, as Inland Democrats learned June 5.
Low turnout among registered Democratic voters led to some disappointing primary election results for the party in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Still, local party leaders are optimistic about the Nov. 6 general election.
“The primary is more of a regular season or playoff game,” said Steve Ruth, Riverside County Democratic Party chairman. “November is the World Series … Those are the races that bring a lot of excitement to voters who aren’t necessarily involved in the process very much.”
Republicans did well up and down the Inland primary ballot. Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox won Riverside and San Bernardino counties by 12 and 14 percentage points, respectively, over Democrat Gavin Newsom.
Democrats were shut out of the 8th Congressional District, where Rep. Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley, will face Republican Tim Donnelly in November in a district covering part of San Bernardino County after three Democratic candidates split the vote. In the 31st Congressional District, which represents another part of the county, Republican Sean Flynn finished just 715 votes behind Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Redlands, and gained more attention from the National Republican Congressional Committee in the process.
Republican Henry Nickel finished ahead of Democrat James Ramos for the open 40th Assembly District seat in San Bernardino County. One positive for Ramos – there was another Democrat on the ballot in the 40th. The combined votes of Ramos and Libbern Cook exceed Nickel’s total.
In Riverside County’s 60th Assembly District, Republican Bill Essayli finished almost 3,400 votes ahead of Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes, D-Riverside.
Former Democratic assemblyman V. Manuel Perez won a nonpartisan Riverside County supervisor race against a well-funded opponent backed by local Republican leaders. But Democrats’ preferred candidates for two other supervisor seats – Penny Newman and Altie Holcomb – came up short, depriving Democrats of a majority on the Board of Supervisors despite four of the five supervisor districts trending blue.
Better than 2014
Republicans and Democrats see positives for their sides in last month’s results. In Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, turnout was the highest in at least two decades for a mid-term primary.
Among the added voters, roughly three in four cast ballots for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate. At the same time, Republican candidates outperformed Democrats in three of four GOP-held congressional districts representing Orange County, and in Los Angeles County, Rep. Steve Knight, R-Santa Clarita, cumulatively beat his Democratic opponents by almost 4 percentage points.
Primary turnout in Riverside and San Bernardino counties was 35 percent and 31 percent, respectively. Statewide turnout was 37.5 percent, higher than 2014.
About 150,000 Riverside County Republicans – roughly 45 percent of the county’s registered Republican voters – cast ballots in the 2018 primary compared to roughly 130,000 registered Democrats – about 35 percent of the county’s registered Democrats.
In San Bernardino County, about 117,000 registered Republicans voted compared to roughly 110,000 Democratic voters. Thirty-one percent of registered Democratic voters and 42 percent of registered Republicans took part in the primary.
The figures do not include no-party-preference voters who lean toward one party or the other.
Collectively, there were more Inland primary votes for GOP gubernatorial candidates than Democratic candidates for governor. Inland Republicans running for House seats also got more votes than Inland Democrats.
On the other hand, Inland Democrats running for Assembly got more votes than Republicans. And Democrats running for U.S. Senate did better than Republican candidates in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
Registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans in both counties, a recent trend that’s turned a once solidly red region purple. Democrats won several highly competitive Inland races in 2012 and have held onto those gains, which include a majority of the House seats representing the Inland Empire.
Ruth and Chris Robles, chairman of the San Bernardino County Democratic Party, were disappointed more Inland Democrats didn’t turn out for the June primary.
“Clearly, we have the numbers in our favor in many, many locations,” Robles said. “But there just wasn’t the turnout we were hoping for.”
“The Democrats didn’t come out as I expected,” Ruth said. “That’s going to be one of my jobs (in November) is trying to get out the vote.”
Charlene McKinley-Powell, president of Democrats of Greater Riverside, said the primary results surprised her.
“That Penny Newman was only about 300 votes away from second (and a spot in the November runoff) was heartbreaking,” she said. “Considering how upset people are about national politics, I was very disappointed that they didn’t transfer their interest to local areas.”
“I do worry that Democrats and other progressives are burned out by the endless outrages committed by (President Donald) Trump and his administration,” McKinley-Powell added. “It’s emotionally exhausting.”
On to November
UC Riverside political science professor Shaun Bowler warned against reading too much into the primary.
“I think it is easy to over-interpret the primary results because turnout is low,” he said. “Low turnout generally favors Republicans while higher turnout brings out more Democrats. So it isn’t too surprising that the GOP did well in the primary.”
General election turnout “is a bit of an open question,” Bowler said. “We know the Democrats will be placing a lot of emphasis on turning people out. But at this point, there is some uncertainty.”
Inland general elections have brought mixed results. Republican gubernatorial candidates won Riverside and San Bernardino counties in 2010 and 2014, but both counties went to Democratic presidential candidates in 2012 and 2016.
Robles and Ruth expect Democratic turnout will improve in November. Robles said his party’s had success with texting voters, which is a more personalized and interactive approach than robocalls.
Candidates for city council and school board seats will energize Democratic voters, Ruth said. “When somebody can go out and knock on a door and make a phone call for a local candidate, that helps all of our candidates,” he said.
While the 60th Assembly District has the look of a competitive race – Essayli hopes voter anger over Cervantes’ swing vote to raise the gas tax carries him to victory – Ruth noted that Cervantes finished second to then-GOP incumbent Eric Linder in the 2016 primary before defeating him in the general election.
With many Inland Democratic incumbents considered safe bets to be re-elected, McKinley-Powell said her group is focusing on candidates like Cervantes “who really need the support.”
McKinley-Powell said she believes Democrats will turn out “in far greater numbers” for the general election, noting that primaries “always have notoriously low participation” and that Trump endorsed Cox.
“Having a Trumpian governor is a terrifying prospect, one that will energize and motivate Democratic and progressive voters,” she said.
Staff Writer Jordan Graham contributed to this story.
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