Santa Barbara Voters Say No to Trumpian Politics
Huge Turnout Thanks to All Mail-in Ballots, Drop-off Centers, Polling Places Opened for Three Days
By Nick Welsh | November 4, 2020
While the outcome of this year’s presidential showdown has the nation biting its collective cuticles for days — perhaps weeks — to come, Santa Barbara County voters could not have been any clearer in their repudiation of President Donald Trump this week. Even in the face of a COVID pandemic, the existence of which the president has all but denied, Santa Barbara voters took to their mail boxes, ballot drop boxes, and yes, even to their polling places in record numbers to cast ballots in this year’s election. And most decisively, they returned their ballots early enough to be safely counted just in case there were any mail delivery delays, election night glitches, or last-minute legal challenges.
None of those problems came to pass in Santa Barbara.
By contrast, President Trump — defying precedent yet again — announced at 2 a.m. ET on Wednesday that he had won the election even as millions of ballots still remained uncounted and a handful of key battleground states remained very much up for grabs. The election was being stolen, Trump declared, by “a very sad group of people.” He would take legal action with the Supreme Court, he vowed, to stop any further counting of election ballots. “This is a fraud on the American public,” he fumed.
Trump’s statements, while unfounded, were hardly unexpected. He’d been challenging the legitimacy of mail-in voting — adopted as a safety hedge against the coronavirus pandemic — for months. With so many lawsuits looming, we could be in for a protracted period of suspended agitation.
Santa Barbara County, mercifully, has been spared any such uncertainty. While our final numbers will not be available for several more days, 66.8 percent of county voters cast their ballots in favor of Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Just 30.5 percent of county voters opted to give Trump four more years. Four years ago, by contrast, Hillary Clinton — Trump’s opponent — garnered just 61 percent of the county’s vote.
Santa Barbara County Democrats enjoy an almost overwhelming advantage in voter registration. This year, Trump-talking Republicans found themselves confronting an even less receptive electorate than they did four years ago.
Congressmember Salud Carbajal, a moderate Democrat, crushed his well-known Republican opponent Andy Caldwell, who — taking a page out of the Trump playbook — sought to portray Carbajal as a screaming socialist. Carbajal, who was first elected the same year as Trump, won with 61.9 percent of the vote districtwide — which includes both Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. In Santa Barbara County — where Carbajal and Caldwell are both best known — Carbajal won with 64.7 percent. Four years ago, Carbajal won with just 53.4 percent of the vote districtwide against Justin Fareed, a relative unknown.
Andy Caldwell, by contrast, has been in the public eye since 1991 as a high-profile conservative advocate for business and agricultural interests. For years, he’s had his own radio show and written a syndicated column for the Santa Barbara News-Press, still one of the few publications in the nation to endorse Trump. Compounding Caldwell’s admitted challenges as a challenger was the difficulties of running a socially distanced campaign during COVID. Even so, Caldwell raised more than $1 million — more than credible — and ran several creative TV commercials, the best known being a spoof of the game show Jeopardy! in which Caldwell sought to harpoon Carbajal as a stooge of the left.
On election night, Carbajal sought refuge from uncertainty by embracing “cautious optimism” that Democrat Biden might still emerge victorious. Should Trump win, he stated, “It will be hard for me to go to work, but go to work I must.” No matter who occupies the White House, Carabjal stated, he needed to represent the interests of his constituents and search for common ground wherever he might find it. “I need to be effective,” he said.
Still, Carbajal found the prospect of Trump serving a second term chilling. “I’m fearful we could move toward the unfathomable,” he stated. “It is scary, the divisiveness he will strive to sow and the violence he will continue to perpetrate and instigate.” After ruminating at length about such grim uncertainties, Carbajal caught himself. “But by golly,” he exclaimed, “I’m still a goddamn optimist!”
With three victories under Carbajal’s belt, Caldwell acknowledged the 24th is now an “uphill district.” For a Republican to win, he said, all Republican voters need to show up en masse and win over more Independents and Democrats, but many Republicans stay home, he said, thinking the deck is stacked against them.
Perhaps the most flamboyantly Trumpian Republican in other down-ticket races was Mark McIntire, a gleefully confrontational right-wing firebrand who ran for the Carpinteria City Council, claiming — among other things — he would protect Carp from the predations of Antifa. McIntire came in a very distant third in a race for two seats, trailing far behind Mayor Wade Nomura — a moderate Republican now poised to start his third term — and newcomer Natalia Alarcon, a social-justice progressive Democrat and professional social worker.
Carpinteria has long offered hospitable terrain for moderate Republicans like Nomura — even for hardline party activists like Greg Gandrud and Joe Armendariz — but McIntire and his rhetorical style proved a bridge too far. Both Alarcon and Nomura — for whatever their differences — have exceptionally deep roots in Carpinteria and both relish the fierce sense of community that defines it. McIntire, having moved to Carpinteria just 10 years ago, still ranks as a newcomer.
In the race for State Senate, Monique Limón, a certified shooting star in statewide Democratic circles, dispatched her inexperienced Republican challenger, Gary Michaels — who got no help from hooking on to Trump — by nearly 66 percent.
The dismal performance by Charles Cole, a 22-year-old standard bearer for Santa Barbara’s culturally inflamed right wing, also bears notice. Cole lost his bid for State Assembly to Democrat Steve Bennett, the longtime Ventura County Supervisor, by a spread of 70-to-30 percent in a district that spans large chunks of both Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. But in Santa Barbara, where Cole lives and Bennett remains very much an unknown quantity, Cole lost by even more. Here the Trumpian coattails hurt as well.
In other races with Trumpian overtones, those candidates most aligned with the president fared poorly. In the race for the Santa Barbara school board, back-to-basics conservatives Brian Campbell and Elrawd MacLearn — both outspoken critics of the district’s implicit-bias training and ethnic studies curriculum — placed fifth and sixth out of an eight-person field in a race for three seats. Both had been supported by a new political action committee, Impact Education, whose members worry that the uprising against racism and the use of violence by police is going too far, too fast.
Of the three Santa Barbara City College candidates Impact Education threw its weight behind, two lost: Celeste Barber and Ronald Liechti. Prevailing over Liechti — waging his first campaign — was incumbent and board chair Robert Miller, endorsed by the Democratic Party. Prevailing over Barber, a former City College English teacher of note but more recently the Joan of Arc of the conservative right, was Anna Everett, a recently retired UCSB professor with roots in the Women’s Political Committee and an African American.
The only conservative SBCC candidate that appears to survive is Veronica Gallardo — who refused to sign a resolution of support for Black Lives Matter in the wake of the George Floyd killing. Gallardo is a two-term incumbent and a longtime elementary school teacher. Her challenger, newcomer Erin Guereña, a progressive with strong Democratic Party backing, came within a couple percentage points of an upset.
Perhaps the biggest winner in Santa Barbara County are the voters. They voted. And in record numbers. According to County Elections czar Joe Holland, the total number of ballots cast this year will exceed 215,000. That’s out of 235,198 registered voters. Had that ever happened before? Holland’s answer was both proud and succinct. “Never,” he said.
In the March primary, with the COVID pandemic spreading, Holland realized many polling workers were afraid to show up to their posts. He moved quickly to instate an all mail-in ballot election this November, as well as opening up around 30 drop-off centers throughout the county where mail-in ballots could be deposited. In Texas, by contrast, only one such drop-off box was allowed per county.
Holland and his crew also assigned 35 polling places where voters could cast their ballots the old-fashioned way. These were opened not just on Election Day, but on the three preceding days, as well. According to the latest figures — still subject to change — around 17,500 ballots were cast at the polls, a small fraction of the whole. “Maybe we overdid it a bit,” said Holland, “But goddamn it, people were going to vote.”