Santa Barbara Democratic Party activists — galvanized by the national yin-yang polarities of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders — waged an all-hands-on-deck drive to get out the vote, dispatching hundreds of precinct walkers into the pre-dawn darkness of Tuesday morning. Thirteen hours later, it was obvious their efforts had paid off. Not only had Democrats out-voter-registered their Republican counterparts by a 5-to-1 margin in the last five months, but they dramatically outvoted them on Election Day.
Election Night 2016
In Santa Barbara County, Hillary Clinton narrowly beat Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination by less than 2 percentage points, but won decisively statewide, clinching her party’s nomination in a historic milestone. The Clinton-Sanders contest resonated powerfully among Santa Barbara County Democrats and helped swell the ranks of new, younger voters moved to action by “The Bern.” This was especially true in Isla Vista, where the Democratic machine turned out student voters in big numbers despite the pressing distractions posed by final exams. In the weeks immediately before the elections, both Clinton and Sanders campaigned in Santa Barbara, rallying their respective troops. So, too, did Democratic candidate Kamala Harris — California Attorney General — and, as of Tuesday night, top vote getter in the wide-open race to replace Barbara Boxer for U.S. Senate.
[Editor’s Note: As late ballots are counted, Sanders edged ahead of Clinton by 108 votes in Santa Barbara County as of June 10. Read more here.]
On the Republican side, Donald Trump — denounced two days before the election by many national Republican luminaries for “textbook” racist statements he made about the Mexican-American judge hearing a fraud case against Donald Trump University — obviously won Santa Barbara County as well as the state, but at significant cost to Republican turnout. Only 25,000 Santa Barbara Republicans voted in the presidential primary. That’s compared to 47,000 Democrats. Of the voting Republicans, 7,000 cast protest ballots for party candidates who’ve long since dropped out of the race; Ohio Governor John Kasich, for example, picked up 3,071.
To the extent Trump got where he is by bashing Mexican immigrants, Santa Barbara Democrats responded by giving 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal — a Mexican immigrant — far and away the most votes in his bid to replace nine-term Congressmember Lois Capps as representative of the 24th Congressional District, which encompasses Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties and a slice of Ventura County. In an open primary contest with nine candidates, Democrat Carbajal secured more than 47,618 votes district-wide. That’s nearly 18,000 more than his next closest rival, Republican Justin Fareed — who got 29,902 — and more than twice as many as Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, his chief Democratic rival in the race.
Over the years, Capps was frequently dismissed by Republican opponents as a “nice lady” just before she cleaned their clocks. Capps, in fact, is a nice lady, but she also assembled a formidable political campaign machine that knew how to raise money, get out the vote, train and nurture an intensely loyal staff, and redraw district maps that — at least for 10 years — gave her a massive advantage in terms of registered Democrats over Republicans. When Capps publically endorsed Carbajal shortly after announcing her retirement, she bequeathed unto him this campaign apparatus. Carbajal picked up Mollie Culver, a get-out-the-vote campaign pro of the first order. Capps loaned Carbajal her priceless donor list for a mere $250. And with her help, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi inserted herself into a primary contest and endorsed Carbajal, thus throwing the weight of the National Democratic Party behind him.
A three-term county supervisor, Carbajal is a tough, ambitious moderate, graced with a congenial easy style and an omnipresent smile. He’s also a ruthless fundraiser, scaring off potential opponents over the years with his bulging campaign account. He’s never faced a single serious challenger. Thus far, he’s raised almost $1.9 million for his congressional campaign. And that does not include the $825,000 the House Majority PAC raised to buy ads singing Carbajal’s praises or relentlessly bloodying Achadjian’s nose.
Carbajal described the get-out-the-vote effort as “historic,” saying, “I didn’t do this; you did this,” to supporters congregating at Benchmark restaurant for an overflowing victory party. He also thanked Lois Capps for her endorsement. When asked how and why he got so much volunteer support, he answered, “I’d like to think it’s because my message resonated with them. I think they saw themselves in me and me in them.”
Achadjian, a three-term assemblymember and three-term supervisor from San Luis Obispo County — seemed very much the Republican Party establishment’s anointed front-runner. But Fareed refused to back down and scored the biggest upset of the night. A Montecito native, Fareed was a high school football star, went to UCLA, and worked for his family’s orthopedic equipment company. He ran for Congress two years ago and came within a few hundred votes of winning the Republican primary with a largely self-funded campaign. This time, he raised over $1 million, mostly from outside the district. That was enough to buy gobs of airtime and to pay political TV commercial guru Fred Davis the big bucks to produce catchy ads.
Achadjian was experienced and well-liked on both sides of the aisle but strikingly lackadaisical. One loyal supporter worried about the “torpor” with which he campaigned. Fareed, by contrast, was intense, energetic, and politically more pointedly conservative. Fareed and Carbajal went negative on Achadjian, with Carbajal accusing him of being bad on reproductive choice and bad on oil, and Fareed attacking him for alleged conflicts of interest involving a small but controversial water project in Los Osos. Achadjian never fought fire with fire or really fought at all. By the night’s end, Fareed, the outsider upstart, beat the establishment candidate by almost 2,500 votes.
Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider placed fourth, garnering 20,992 votes. Hers was always an uphill climb. In recent years, she’d grown increasingly estranged from the Democratic Party establishment that once embraced her. Schneider found herself forced into the role of “the outsider” candidate, seemingly unlikely given that when she last ran for mayor she faced no viable opponents. Lacking funds, however, she couldn’t buy the airtime to effectively compete. “No regrets,” Schneider said at a party at The Mill on Haley Street, where she thanked her supporters with a brief but heartfelt speech. Running for Congress, she said, will make her a better mayor and opened her eyes to the totality of the 24th District. When asked about endorsing Carbajal, Schneider said she agreed with him on many issues but took a different tack on others. “I’ll figure it out what I want to do with this race in due time,” she said. “Tomorrow is another day.”
Conservative political action committees spent $663,000 to exert political body English on the congressional race’s outcome, sometimes in novel ways. Two PACs spent a combined $267,000 pretending to oppose Democrats Schneider and Bill Ostrander, the latter such a stand-in for Bernie Sanders that he printed bumper stickers reading “Feel the Bill.” In reality, these mailers and phone messages were directed at Democratic voters with messages designed to make progressive Democrats salivate over these candidates. By bolstering Schneider and Ostrander, the strategy was to take votes away from Carbajal — always the front Democratic candidate — thus improving the relative odds of Republicans Achadjian and Fareed to make it into a two-Republican runoff. As contenders in an open primary election, the top two vote getters face off in November regardless of party affiliation.
While Fareed’s victory qualifies as the upset of the primary, he faces serious challenges. Of the 145,671 ballots cast for the congressional district, far less than half — only 65,226 — voted Republican.
The outcome of several of the races was predictable. State Assemblymember Das Williams, for example, was expected to win handily over Jennifer Christensen to replace Carbajal as 1st District Supervisor, and he did so. But no one expected Williams — an outspoken environmentalist and supporter of the $15 minimum wage — to win the Chamber of Commerce endorsement, but he did. While Christensen — a self-described “first-time candidate with zero name recognition” — never got within striking distance, she raised more than a respectable amount of money and also got a respectable 7,391 votes compared to Williams’s 10,702. “I won’t be running for State Senate in 2020,” she said, taking a jab at Williams for starting a fundraising committee for a possible Senate bid in 2020. Williams has said that was a placeholder committee to allow him to raise funds for fellow assemblymembers before joining Santa Barbara’s Board of Supervisors and doesn’t reflect his actual intentions. The addition of Williams, far more outspoken and confrontational than Carbajal, to the Board of Supervisors could alter the fundamental chemistry of the board in terms of personality and politics that transcend ideology. The widespread suspicion Williams will soon be running for State Senate makes his transition even more fraught.
Likewise, Peter Adam — outspokenly conservative, governmental minimalist, and farmer — beat challenger and first-time candidate Eduardo Ozeta, who also happens to be an SEIU union representative, a registered Republican, and proud NRA member. Ozeta raised big bucks from the Chumash casino and public employee unions, but still lost to Adam by a 2-to-1 margin. Adam was the only incumbent running for supervisor.
The most strategically significant local race was for the 3rd Supervisorial District seat — the key swing vote defining the political tilt of the board as a whole. Planning commissioner and Buellton resident Joan Hartmann — backed by the environmental Democratic machine — wound up taking 1,100 votes more than her chief rival, Santa Ynez school board member Bruce Porter, who was backed by many ranchers, farmers, oil companies, and developers in a five-way race. Hartmann and Porter — who both sport impressive professional and educational résumés — will face each other in a runoff this November in what will be a classic North County-South County cultural-political showdown. Because student voters — disproportionately liberal and Democratic — traditionally show up in large numbers during presidential elections, Hartmann is given good odds of prevailing come November.
In two key races, the incumbents ran all but unopposed and won almost as easily as if they were. Democratic State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson easily beat challenger Colin Patrick Walch — 47,267 to 29,733 — in perhaps the most nonexistent campaign Jackson has ever run. Democratic Santa Barbara school boardmember Monique Limón beat her opponent, Edward Fuller, by more than 2-to-1 in her first bid for the State Assembly. Limón said, “[O]ne of the things I learned in my school board race is to take every day and just work as hard as I can. There’s no magic.”