What was expected to be a close race in California Senate District 7 was anything, but that. On Tuesday, Orinda Mayor Steve Glazer (D) sailed to victory over Assemblymember Susan Bonilla (D-Concord) -- who carried the Democratic Party's endorsement -- by over 9 percentage points, 54.6 percent to 45.4.
The special election in Senate District 7 was considered one of the most hotly-contested State Senate races in California history. In total, approximately $7 million was spent by outside groups, negative attack ads and mailers flooded local airwaves and mailboxes, and controversy surrounded the actions of some political action committees, including one that intentionally tried to confuse voters during the primary election.
In the end, however, the race between two Democrats, a product of California's new nonpartisan election system, didn't come down to who spent the most money, which candidate had the party's endorsement, or who stuffed the most mailers in voters' mailboxes. In the end, it came down to who had the broadest appeal among voters -- and who didn't.
Fox & Hound reports:
The runoff for this seat was not a Democrat verses a Republican, as would have been the case under the old partisan runoff system. Instead two Democrats faced off under our new “top two” runoff system, and all the voters, not just partisans in a closed primary, had a chance to select the winner in this safe Democratic district. According to the excellent analysis by Political Data, a third of the voters were Republicans; 15 percent were Decline to State, and only a little more than half were Democrats. Yet the union-directed campaign for Glazer’s opponent, Democratic Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, played just to the Democratic base. It ran a campaign as though the race were a closed Democratic primary. Because the top two runoff creates an open contest in which all voters are equal, appeals simply to a partisan base are doomed to fail, even when they are bankrolled in the millions of dollars as the public employee union effort was.
Dirty politics partly defined the campaign in the special election for the district. Special interest groups and political action committees spent millions on divisive ads and election material to smear the candidate they didn't want to win. This ended up reflecting negatively on Bonilla and Glazer, even though candidates have no direct influence on how outside groups spend money in elections.
From Fox & Hound:
Bonilla was not nearly as wretched a candidate as the campaign waged on her behalf by an outfit called “Working Families Opposing Glazer for Senate 2015”. Glazer, a long time Democratic political consultant, Jerry Brown’s campaign manager, and Orinda mayor, is a moderate Democrat. But to read the junk voters received attacking him you’d have thought he was in the pocket of the detested Koch brothers, or Big Tobacco, or Big Oil, of any of the other myriad of labor’s Great Satans. To be effective, negative mail has to be credible, and none of this was. “Working Families,” the union funded independent expenditure that for all intents and purposes was the Bonilla campaign, managed to waste more than $3 million on this nonsense. As Skelton wrote, the district is “an upper-middle-class region of highly educated white-collar commuters. It’ll be interesting to see whether they fall for the blarney being spewed by a few win-at-any-cost political assassins.”
Read the full article from Fox & Hound here.
While critics of the nonpartisan election system in California say it is resulting in more money being spent on elections (taking advantage of the common belief that money is the biggest problem in elections), the special election in Senate District 7 proved that money doesn't decide elections when voters are given real power to decide which candidate will end up representing them.
Voters didn't buy into all of the negative attack ads. Voter turnout was higher than anyone could have expected and voters in suburban communities showed up in greater numbers than voters in more labor-friendly areas of the district. A third of voters were reportedly Republican, 15 percent were Decline to State, and a little over half were Democrats.
This election was not decided by majority party voters as it would have under the old partisan election system. It was decided by Republicans, independents, and voters affiliated with minor parties. Glazer won because he was able to appeal to voters across the political spectrum.
Money didn't win in Senate District 7. The Democratic Party didn't win in Senate District 7. The voters won in Senate District 7.