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On paper, unseating Ron Roberts from the all-Republican county Board of Supervisors looked like the Democrats’ best chance at breaking the GOP hold on the board.

The five sitting supervisors have served together for 15 years.

Local Democrats viewed Roberts as the most vulnerable supervisor since registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by two-to-one in his district, the county’s urban core.

But despite those odds, the election didn’t pan out for Democrats. Around 1 a.m., with 88 percent of precincts reporting, Roberts was a lock for a fifth term in office with 58 percent of the vote to Whitburn’s 42 percent.

For Roberts, victory marks an endorsement of his 16 years on the board. If Supervisor Bill Horn also defeats Steve Gronke tonight — Horn leads with 53 percent of the vote — the election represents broader voter approval of county government, which both challengers harshly criticized in their campaigns.

“It’s an endorsement of the things we’ve done in the past, but for me personally, it’s given me the energy to take on the problems we see now,” Roberts said in an interview.

Roberts stopped short of declaring victory Tuesday night, but said he felt very confident that the final outcome would fall in his favor.

Whitburn and his campaign manager did not respond to calls late Tuesday night about the election. Earlier, Whitburn said preliminary results fell lower than he expected and hoped precinct totals would make up the difference. They did not.

Jess Durfee, chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party, said he was disappointed with the outcome, but glad that Roberts was at least forced to a runoff for the first time.

“It was a good opportunity,” he said. “We had to put our resources where we could, and we just didn’t have enough resources to do that job (with Whitburn).”

When the Democratic Party’s two high-profile contenders for Roberts’ seat dropped out before the primary, it scrambled to amass four candidates and push Roberts to a runoff election. Whitburn, who never intended to run for supervisor, emerged as the Democratic nominee overnight and a new, avid critic of county government.

But along the campaign trail, Whitburn struggled to raise campaign cash and spur momentum with local news media — two obstacles facing any challenger seeking broader name recognition. Whitburn touted the endorsement of the city’s firefighters union, but received little financial support from the party and other labor unions. Like the local Democratic Party and other labor groups, firefighters focused their attention on tight city and statewide races.

Roberts, meanwhile, touted the endorsement of two police unions and received financial support from Republican interest groups. His own campaign treasury benefited from donations in the real estate and construction industries. By mid-October, Roberts raised $355,000 — more than tripling Whitburn.

Whitburn’s concerns about county government largely fell on deaf ears since much of his criticism echoed controversial programs or decisions that news media had reported about months or years earlier. And Whitburn made few promises about how he would address those concerns differently as county supervisor.

On the issues that Whitburn considered his campaigning strengths, Roberts pointed to recent actions to downplay the concerns. Whitburn urged the county to spend more on fire protection. Then it did. Whitburn said the county should add more oversight to a controversial grants program. Then it added restrictions. Whitburn said the county failed to apply for federal stimulus dollars. Then Roberts applauded a new $5 million grant.

“The guy (Whitburn) never made the case, in terms of finding an issue or narrative that really chewed away at Roberts,” said Vince Vasquez, a policy analyst for the National University System Institute for Policy Research think tank. “I don’t think the guy got as much traction as he possibly could have.”

Rather than emphasizing issues, Whitburn’s campaign relied on his label as the Democratic candidate. But since county supervisor is a nonpartisan seat, neither candidate had his party affiliation listed on the ballot. If voters didn’t know Roberts or Whitburn by name and affiliation, they didn’t know who was the Democratic candidate.

Please contact Keegan Kyle directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/keegankyle.

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