This post has been updated.
More than $10 million and 17 months later, we’ll have to wait at least one more day to find out definitively who won one of the most expensive and bitter elections San Diego has ever seen.
Democratic Rep. Scott Peters trailed his Republican challenger Carl DeMaio 49.7 percent to 50.3 percent as of 1:08 a.m. Wednesday, according to the San Diego County Registrar of Voters. About 750 votes separated the pair, who are vying to represent northern San Diego and surrounding communities in Congress.
In speeches Tuesday night, both candidates gave variations on how “very optimistic” they were the results would break their way. DeMaio led by about 2,000 votes when the first batch of results posted, but as the night wore on, Peters chipped into the lead.
Peters appeared calm and confident when he spoke to cheering supporters early in the evening, even before the returns started moving in his direction.
“This has been one of the tougher campaigns in San Diego history,” Peters said.
Normally, these kinds of elections are referendums on the incumbent. Not this time. DeMaio dominated the entire campaign.
In the month before Election Day, two former campaign workers separately accused DeMaio of sexually harassing them. The allegations spiraled into a bizarre and far-reaching scandal that ultimately detoured into plagiarism, falsified emails and a break-in of DeMaio’s campaign headquarters. Even before the final month, DeMaio had sucked up all the campaign’s oxygen. He won national attention because he represented one of Republicans’ first viable openly gay congressional candidates, one who espoused moderate views on same-sex marriage, women’s issues and climate change.
DeMaio also has long been the most polarizing politician in San Diego because of his combativeness, hardline positions on fiscal issues and failed bid for mayor in 2012. Peters, a moderate environmental attorney coming off two uneventful years in Congress, evokes little of the same drama or passion.
Tuesday night in a speech before a crowd of backers, DeMaio spoke of the historic nature of his campaign, and referenced the challenges he faced.
“If potentially I were a Democrat there would be people in the streets rioting over what we’ve had to endure,” DeMaio said.
That DeMaio could potentially weather the storm against him in the past month spoke to forces larger than himself. Nationally, Republicans rode a wave of support that led them to a takeover the U.S. Senate and a growing majority in the House of Representatives. Locally, there has been a similar trend. In every Election Day without a presidential general election on the ballot since 2008, San Diego conservative candidates and causes have run the table on competitive campaigns.
The reason is turnout.
Democrats don’t show up to the polls in the same numbers when they’re not voting for president, which leaves typically the GOP to reap the spoils. Turnout Tuesday night looked like it would end up below 50 percent. That’s a far cry from the 77 percent of voters countywide who showed up in November 2012 to re-elect President Barack Obama, when Peters won a squeaker over then Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray.
But Vince Vasquez, who monitored the race as a senior analyst with the National University System Institute for Policy Research, said he was surprised DeMaio didn’t benefit more from the low turnout and the Republican-leaning voters who showed up in greater numbers than their Democratic counterparts.
“Independents are comfortable with Scott Peters as their representative,” Vasquez said.
Win or lose, the sexual harassment allegations could continue to dog DeMaio. The first ex-staffer to accuse DeMaio, Todd Bosnich, said he planned to file a lawsuit against him, and the FBI is investigating claims that Bosnich and his mother were threatened after he left the campaign.