“Democrats don’t vote in primaries.” This is what everyone down to my friend’s 5-year-old son (which was particularly disconcerting) told me when I decided to run for San Diego County assessor-recorder-clerk, an office that was decided on June 5. But I figured things might be different in 2018, given that Donald Trump is in the White House and the electorate seemed anxious to send a message, so I resolved to find out for myself the hard way. Spoiler: Everyone was largely right, but with a caveat.
Democrats, even down-ballot ones like me without the benefit of party identification next to our names, actually did well in San Diego County where turnout was highest and where media coverage was thickest — specifically, in the 49th Congressional District and in the County Board of Supervisors’ 4th District. But they fared poorly enough everywhere else that the electorate looked more like it traditionally does in a midterm primary. In both cases, this led to some unexpected outcomes.
Overall, the county electorate in this year’s primary was quite conservative. While Democrat Gavin Newsom finished first statewide in the gubernatorial primary, he finished behind Republican John Cox in San Diego County, and also earned fewer votes than a certain local assessor-recorder-clerk candidate (Gavin, if you’re reading, call me — I have some pointers). This trend held in the lieutenant governor’s race, too, where Republican Cole Harris finished 5 points ahead of his nearest competitor despite not even making the runoff statewide. Indeed, Republicans running for statewide office all generally overperformed in San Diego County.
The effect was felt in the contested countywide races as well. Republican incumbents for district attorney, sheriff and assessor-recorder-clerk all defeated their Democratic challengers by larger margins than expected. The hoped-for “blue wave,” it seems, didn’t make it south of Camp Pendleton.
There were some bright spots for Democrats, though. The results in the much-ballyhooed and breathlessly covered 49th Congressional District, where Republicans lead Democrats in overall registration 36 percent to 31 percent, were very promising, with Democrats combining to earn more than 53 percent of the vote in the San Diego County portion of the district. This bodes well for Democrat Mike Levin’s chances at flipping the seat in November. And strong Democratic turnout in the 49th produced an entirely unexpected result down the ballot in the essentially coterminous 76th Assembly District: Two Democrats, Tasha Boerner Horvath and Elizabeth Warren (no, not that one), advanced in the primary, earning a combined total of 51 percent of the vote and completely shutting Republicans out of a seat they had held for years — without a Democrat running in any of the three previous elections.
Significantly higher Democratic turnout was seen in our region’s other high-profile local race as well. Total Democratic registration in the Board of Supervisors’ 4th District comes in at 44 percent but Democratic candidates combined to earn 73 percent of the vote in a race that seemed to receive nonstop local media coverage, with primary winner Democrat Nathan Fletcher looking poised to win the Republican-held seat in November. This may have played a role in the San Diego City Council District 2 race, located entirely within the 4th Supervisor District: Incumbent Republican Lorie Zapf was held to 43 percent while her three main Democratic challengers combined to earn more than 50 percent, putting her in a rather precarious position for the general election.
For my own part, while I received about 37 percent of the vote countywide, which figures to be good for around 200,000 votes once they’ve all been counted, I won handily in the 4th supervisorial district, even surpassing 60 percent of the vote in more than 60 precincts there. I also did well in the 49th Congressional District, winning precincts in Encinitas, Solana Beach, Oceanside, Vista and Carlsbad. The trouble for me was that I lost — often heavily — not only in Republican strongholds like East County but also in traditionally Democratic areas like the South Bay, places where there wasn’t a high-profile race boosting Democratic turnout. My campaign for a little-known office needed a lift from more closely watched races, and where that wasn’t possible, I couldn’t gain traction.
What lessons can we glean from this? Well, the conventional wisdom that Democrats don’t vote in midterm primaries chiefly holds true, but if a primary race gets enough press coverage, Democratic voters will indeed show up. So, if you’re plotting your own future run for obscure local office, might I suggest campaigning exclusively in a goat costume?