Caballero at the Mega Voices Party in Moss Landing | Photo, David Royal
By Joe Livernois
Senator-elect Anna Caballero and Madera County Supervisor Rob Poythress spent at least $6 million this year in their bruising campaign for a key state Senate election, according to campaign filings.
Caballero, the former mayor of Salinas, won the election with a surge of late absentee votes counted in the days following the Nov. 6 election.
Caballero announced her victory Friday at Mega Voices, the one-year anniversary celebration for Voices of Monterey Bay in Moss Landing, soon after she learned of the late vote count. (She and her husband, Juan Uranga, initially RSVP’d as guests, but Caballero was asked to speak when word spread that she had won the election.) Since then, Caballero has extended her win over Poythress by more 11,000 votes, with a 53-47 percent margin.
It was a critical win for California Democrats because Caballero’s victory — along with a win by Melissa Hurtado over incumbent Sen. James Vidak — ensured a supermajority for the party in both the Senate and the Assembly, meaning that new legislation is veto-proof if legislators vote along party lines. Caballero and Hurtado “turned” their districts; Hurtado, a 30-year-old Sanger city councilwoman, defeated a Republican incumbent, while Caballero, 63, will replace Sen. Anthony Cannella, a Republican who was termed out of office.
The battle to capture a supermajority likely explains the enormous amount of money spent to campaign in the 12th Senate District. The district is also an expansive and ungainly rural district that includes pieces of six different counties, including the east side of Monterey County, and at least three different and distinct “media markets.” The district takes in small towns like Ceres and Fowler. Salinas and Madera are the largest cities in the 12th District.
According to the latest figures from the Secretary of State, Caballero’s campaign has spent more than $3.3 million. That does not include almost $1 million spent on her behalf by independent political organizations outside of her campaign. Her financial statements show that the state Democratic Party supported her campaign with at least $750,000 worth of campaign support.
The Poythress campaign reports it spent about $2.6 million so far, according to filings. His campaign has not yet reported any independent expenditures on his behalf. But the state Republican Party and Republican central committees from around the state poured more than $1 million into his campaign. That does not include the dozens of Republican politicians throughout the state who each ponied up $4,400 to Poythress.
Combine the two campaigns, and the 12th Senate District race was by far the most expensive seat for the state Legislature in 2018. Both Poythress and Caballero were aware of the stakes, as progressive and conservative organizations poured money into their campaigns. Poythress openly told constituents on the campaign trail that Democrats would “run the table” in California if Caballero emerged the winner.
For the Democrats’ part, the district felt imminently winnable, though it has been in Republican hands for decades. Democrats have an 18-point edge in registration over Republicans, and voters in the district handily favored Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, respectively, during the past three presidential elections. But the Senate seat happens to be up during the midterm election cycles, when Democrats notoriously vote in lower numbers, so it took some tenacious campaigning and smart strategy to pull off the win, according to Caballero’s supporters.
Ken Smith, Caballero’s campaign coordinator, said the Caballero campaign identified and targeted about 50,000 voters in the district who had voted in the 2016 general election but had skipped the 2014 election. The campaign flooded neighborhoods with canvassers, both paid and volunteers. Smith estimated that the campaign knocked on 150,000 doors and supporters talked to about 30,000 people.
“It was a big effort,” he said. “One of the keys to success was the recruitment of local folks with deep roots and connections to the communities they were canvassing.”
The campaign featured more than a fair share of high-profile television and radio advertising, including a hit piece on Caballero that suggested that she was too friendly with criminals and supported public drug use. The election also featured the intrigue of an alleged burglary, after Caballero reported her campaign office in Merced was broken into and and computers with critical data had been taken.
By early Wednesday morning, the day after the election, Poythress held a narrow lead over Caballero. But she began to surge ahead in the following days, when late absentee and provisional ballots were counted. A similar outcome occurred in a Central Valley congressional district where some boundaries overlap with the 12th Senate District. In that race, incumbent Rep. Jeff Denham held a narrow lead over Democratic challenger Josh Harder after votes were announced on election night, but Harder eventually pulled out the win, by a relatively large margin, once the late absentee ballots were counted. (In the Harder-Denham race for Congress, the candidates raised more than $11 million,)
Smith said Caballero benefited from the Harder campaign, which saw hundreds of activist volunteers from throughout California flood Stanislaus County to walk precincts for the Democrat. “There’s no doubt that was rocket fuel for us,” he said. “The Harder coattail effect was tremendous for us.”
The county-by-county vote tabulations indicate that Poythress picked up a sizeable advantage in Madera County, which makes sense because he is that county’s supervisor, and he also did well in the chunk of northern Fresno County included in the 12th district.
With the latest counts released late Wednesday night, Caballero easily outdistanced Poythress by almost 12,500 votes in her home territory of the Salinas Valley, holding a 65-35 percent edge. She held a 6,007-vote lead in Stanislaus County, according to the latest count. She even managed a 700-vote advantage in San Benito County, usually a Republican stronghold.
Uranga said Caballero’s campaign strategy was to minimize the damage in Merced County. Poythress had been ahead in that county after the election-day count, by only 1,009 votes, but a tally of late absentee ballots completed late Wednesday in that county gave her 1,400 more votes than the Republican. As of Tuesday, Caballero holds an overall edge of almost 12,000 votes over Poythress.
Smith said the outcome reflected a change in demographics in the Central Valley. The high cost of living in the San Francisco Bay area is forcing more progressive voters into the valley, while the numbers of registered Latino voters are dramatically improving throughout the region.
“The conventional wisdom is that a Salinas candidate could not win this district,” he said. “But Democratic candidates never really run the right sort of campaign. We concentrated on talking directly to Latinos and young people in the district and it paid off.”
During her impromptu victory speech on Friday in Moss Landing, Caballero said, “The outcome tells me the message and vision of our campaign was the right one for rural California and the district’s voters.”
Caballero had served two terms in the Assembly, but suffered her only political loss when she came up short in her bid for the 12th District Senate seat in 2010 against Cannella. After that loss, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her to serve as secretary of the state Consumer Services Agency, a post she held until she was elected again to the state Assembly.
Poythress conceded in a Facebook post on Friday, saying that his campaign “left nothing on the table.
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