Over the weekend, former Assembly Speaker and Democratic candidate for State Controller, John Perez, officially called for a selective recount of 15 counties in the ever-so-close race for 2nd place in the State Controller primary. 481 votes separate him and Democrat Board of Equalization member Betty Yee.
It is anyone’s guess how long a recount will take and exactly how much it will cost the two Democrats. There is also some ambiguity as to whether votes counted in specific precincts can be officially tallied unless the entire county is also recounted (which would take more time and money). Because a statewide recount hasn’t occurred in modern California history, take anyone’s assurances of how this will go and who it will benefit with a grain of salt.
But Republican State Controller candidate and Mayor of Fresno, Ashley Swearengin, and to a lesser extent, Republican Secretary of State candidate and civic engagement specialist, Pete Peterson, could take advantage of the recount.
Free Publicity is the Best Publicity: With a gubernatorial race that likely won’t catch fire and the state legislature in summer recess, there isn’t much besides two prominent Democrats battling it out for journalists to cover this July. All of this means 1) Betty Yee and John Perez will be constantly making headlines and 2) the coverage will focus on the mudslinging. The first part benefits Yee and Perez as it will boost their name recognition, but the second part could work to increase their negatives. However, with the Controller’s race in the news, this is also a good opportunity for Swearengin to get some free (and positive) press. Swearengin should seek out and accept every interview request from every reporter in the state (from the top statewide papers like the San Francisco Chronicle to the local LA Daily News). By including her story in reporters’ narratives, Swearengin will also boost her name ID and will do so positively – a stark contrast to her Democratic challengers.
Raise Money and Lots of It: As of the last filing period, Swearengin had outraised Betty Yee by over $100,000, but Perez swamped both with his $757,000 raised. Perez also ended the filing period with most money: almost $2 million compared to $71,000 for Swearengin and $116,000 for Yee. Yee and Perez will further deplete their resources during the recount, but in California, between the California Democratic Party’s multi-million dollar war chest and public employee unions’ millions, Democrats are never wanting for campaign funds. Swearengin should use this time to fundraise, build-up her cash-on-hand, and reserve advertising space for the autumn (to lock in better rates), so when voters start paying attention to the elections again, she can easily and quickly begin advertising. And it appears she is doing just that. Since the June 3 primary, Swearengin has raised $115,800 (63% of total contributions since the last filing period). Whereas Perez has only raised $40,215 (16% of contributions since the filing period) and Yee has brought in nothing since June 3rd.
Stay Out of the Way: Swearengin’s challenge is overcoming the state’s strong Democratic leaning and building name recognition for a down-ballot office few Californians pay attention to (let alone know what its responsibilities are). A splintered Democratic base will help the first challenge; Betty Yee and John Perez come from different parts of the Democratic base. Perez, a Latino, is a former union official from Southern California, while Yee, an Asian, is a San Francisco progressive. One side will feel robbed by the end of the recount, which could reduce turnout come November. Swearengin has more control over the second challenge, but all name ID isn’t created equal. Her image must be very good to counteract the party’s relatively toxic brand. Opining about or interjecting herself into the recount battle could make Swearengin look like just another politician taking advantage of the situation. Instead, Swearengin should focus on her background and experiences and hone a message centered on holding Sacramento’s Democratic one-party rule accountable. Making her campaign about protecting taxpayers will nicely contrast against Yee and Perez, who will likely look like ambitious politicians after a lengthy and expensive recount.
Turn the Story into an Issue: With the Controller recount stories filling up newspapers, don’t expect to see many write-ups about the Secretary of State’s race. This is a problem for Peterson, who also needs to positively boost his name ID in order to compete against his better financed, better known Democratic opponent – state Senator Alex Padilla. However, the recount nicely fits with Peterson’s civic engagement efforts. California doesn’t have an automatic recount trigger meaning the process is ripe for gamesmanship. It allows one’s vote to be considered more important than another’s (a candidate can cherry-pick the precincts to recount), and it theoretically prevents a one’s due process (for those who cannot afford the millions it would take to fund a recount). Eventually, the process could end up in court, which will do little to increase voter trust in the system. Using the recount news as a way to get himself into the news, Peterson can highlight how California’s recount laws are dated, complex, and easily manipulated, and thus, highlight his knowledge of the issues and his good governance reform agenda.
To win statewide in California, a Republican has to run a flawless campaign in addition to the Democrat making unforced errors. For Swearengin, the recount could be the Democrat’s error, while her actions could lay a solid foundation for November. For Peterson, he could use the issue to communicate he is the most qualified for the position.