SAN FRANCISCO — The growing Latino electorate in California appears to have turned out for Tuesday’s primary at a higher rate than it did for the last midterm election, but in a way that did not automatically benefit the top Latino candidates.
The state’s most accomplished Latino politician, Antonio Villaraigosa (D), lost the second-place spot on the gubernatorial ballot to John Cox, a little-known Republican business executive. The former mayor of Los Angeles won one county after an expensive campaign, finishing well behind the winning Democrat, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
State Sen. Kevin de León (D) fared little better in his race for the U.S. Senate. He secured the second slot on the November ballot, but by Wednesday clung to 11 percent of the vote, to incumbent Democrat Dianne Feinstein’s 44 percent.
Feinstein hardly campaigned in the state ahead of the primary, and de León’s showing will do little to strengthen his case in November.
The results suggest that, in a state where the Latino electorate is large and varied, political allegiance to ethnicity was far less important than the quality of the candidates in each race.
Accounting for a quarter of California’s registered voters, Latinos appear to have picked top-of-the-ticket winners with long experience in state and national politics, overlooking for the most part Latino candidates who were relative newcomers to statewide elections and those who have been offstage for too long.
Some found reason for optimism in the early results. President Trump has stirred Latino energy across the state, which helped translate Tuesday into five Latino candidates for statewide offices — including de León in the Senate race — securing places on the November ballot. And the initial turnout levels also rose.
“The early signs on Latino turnout is that it is way above the 2014 level,” said Matt Barreto, a political science and Chicano studies professor at UCLA who is analyzing precinct-level election returns.
The 2014 midterm turnout is admittedly a low bar: Only 12 percent of eligible Latino voters cast ballots.
Political analysts were cautious Wednesday about reading too much into results that are incomplete. Mail-in ballots are still being counted, and the precinct-level voter data that is most useful to analysts has yet to be released by almost all of the state’s counties.
But Barreto said that Orange County’s precinct-level returns show a high Latino turnout, and that those voters played a potentially decisive role in helping Democrats secure spots for the general election in three key congressional districts. Those districts have been held for years by Republicans, including two who declined to run this year.
One lesson to draw, Barreto said, was that in races that are highly competitive and where Latino support is targeted specifically, Latino voters turn out. He said that not all Latino-heavy districts may vote at similar rates, but still-to-come returns will reveal the extent of the turnout statewide.
Many Latino voters in Orange County also spurned Villaraigosa and chose Newsom, a veteran of Bay Area and state politics, for governor. Newsom’s success in Southern California counties where Villaraigosa counted on big Latino support showed the depth of his base.
It also revealed the weakness of Villaraigosa, who has been out of elected office for five years. Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, called it California’s “out of sight, out of mind” tendency when it comes to politicians.
“What’s important to note is that to mobilize the Latino electorate on a broad scale, you need a Latino politician of the moment,” Whalen said. “Villaraigosa was a big deal, a very big deal when he was elected mayor in 2005. But that’s a long time ago.”
Villaraigosa, who served as speaker of the State Assembly before becoming mayor, ran the city at a time of severe budget strain. He cut services, held off on pay hikes and created antagonists among powerful public- employee unions.
The city was in far better shape when he left office, but that legacy was a difficult one for Villaraigosa to present during the campaign, which came at a time of budget surpluses in Sacramento and a thriving state economy. Barreto said Villaraigosa would have needed to win 70 percent of Latino votes cast to finish second in the primary and fell far short of that figure.
Karen Skelton, a Democratic political consultant in Sacramento, said the top-two primary system also probably undermined Villaraigosa’s support among Latinos and others. Polls showed Newsom heading into Tuesday with a large lead, and the race for second the only aspect in question.
“This top-two primary system doesn’t really work,” Skelton said. “No one gets excited to get out and vote for who is going to come in second.”
Skelton noted that in Los Angeles County — Villaraigosa’s geographic base — the turnout Tuesday has been estimated at 18 percent. That is three percentage points below the state turnout figure.
“When you are looking at numbers that low, that’s a disaster for Antonio,” Skelton said.
Low turnout in Los Angeles would also have meant trouble for de León, whose district encompasses downtown and East Los Angeles.
De León’s underwhelming performance underscores the difficulty of running for statewide office in California, which has a population of 40 million people living in more than a dozen media markets. Running is extremely expensive, fought largely through radio and television commercials, and it often takes one or two attempts to establish name recognition.
California’s term-limit law prevented de León, who at 51 is more than three decades younger than Feinstein, from running again for his state Senate seat. California’s crowded and highly ambitious Democratic field means that it is very hard to pick the right moment to run, and de León saw an opportunity to campaign against Feinstein from the left, where she was theoretically vulnerable.
As president of the state Senate, he wrote the “sanctuary state” law, which when it took effect this year sharply limited contact between state law enforcement officials and federal immigration agents. He also pushed a universal health-care measure that angered some fellow Democrats because of its expense.
Even with his legislative credentials and deep involvement in the state’s resistance to Trump, de León has been all but written off for November, as Feinstein demonstrated her comparative strength Tuesday.
“Californians just don’t pay much attention to the state government,” Whalen said. “You learn quickly that because you are a big deal in Sacramento, you are not necessarily a big deal anywhere else.”