California's 2022 Primary Results and Takeaways

California Government Update

Historically Low Turnout Results in Status Quo Outcome

California’s June top-two primary is when California voters choose their two favorites for state offices. Unlike in many other states, voters can pick any candidate regardless of party affiliation and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election in November.

Voter Turnout a Big Factor

Voter turnout is hovering at less than 20%. The all-time low was 25%, in June 2014.

Mailed ballots are still coming in, but are not expected to change the fact that this will be a very low turnout election in spite of recent COVID-inspired efforts to make voting easier in the state. This means only a small fraction of Californians made the preliminary decisions that will shape November’s ballot showdowns, and it’s clear they weren’t looking to make many changes.

The primary electorate appears to have been older, with early results indicating that more than 50% were age 65+, and whiter (70%) than California’s majority-minority population. Latinos appear to have voted at a markedly lower rate in this election, turning out at only 15% though they represent more than 27% of those eligible to vote.

As is expected in a low-turnout primary, Democrats and Republicans voted in bigger numbers than those who don’t identify with either party. A preliminary breakdown shows Democrats represented about 53% of the voters (though only 47% of all voters are registered Democrats), 26% were Republicans (24% registered), and 21% were independent or minor party voters (30% registered).

These numbers are subject to change as late ballots are counted in the coming week, but the overall numbers and the proportions of the electorate are not expected to be much different when the election is certified next month.

California’s low voter turnout is consistent with national numbers, where there was a more-than-usual lack of participation in the midterm primaries. The lower turnout is attributed by many observers to widespread voter distraction, discomfort and disquiet about varied issues, including the war in Ukraine and the rapid rise in gas prices, supply chain disruptions and acute price inflation, growing fears about gun violence and crime generally, expected U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and a general sense here and elsewhere in the country that leaders and institutions can’t do much to improve any of it anytime soon.

Statewide Offices

Californians voted for eight statewide offices and the primary results suggest that only the State Controller’s post will change hands in November and that is because the current Controller, Betty Yee, is the only statewide elected official who is termed out. The other seven officeholders, including Governor Gavin Newsom-appointed Attorney General Rob Bonta and Secretary of State Shirley Weber, appear likely to prevail in November barring a significant change in voter sentiment.

Newsom is strongly favored to win reelection. As of Wednesday evening, with 50% of votes reported, he has 56% of the vote and his likely opponent will be Republican Senator Brian Dahle, who has 17%.

The race to succeed Yee as State Controller is getting special attention as national Republican policy and political advisor and Stanford professor Lanhee Chen, in his first-time run for public office, looks to be the primary winner with 37% of the vote. This is the first time in over a decade that a Republican has won a primary for a statewide office in California. In a state that has voted reliably Democrat the past 12 years, political observers will be watching this race closely to see if Chen can win in November when going head-to-head with just one Democrat—likely Malia Cohen, current chair of the State Board of Equalization, who has 21% of the vote. In the primary, it appears multiple high-profile but regional Democratic candidates split the party vote. If Chen prevails in the fall, he would be the first Republican elected to a statewide office since 2006, when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected to a full term after winning the 2003 recall election to replace Governor Gray Davis. Republican Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner also won statewide in 2006.

In other races, incumbent Democratic Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis leads with 52% of the vote. Republican challenger Angela E. Underwood Jacobs has 20%.

Attorney General Bonta leads his race with 54% of the vote. Republican challenger Nathan Hochman has 19%, while another Republican challenger, Eric Early, has 17%.

Secretary of State Weber leads her race with 59% of the vote, while Republican challenger Rob Bernosky has 20%.

In the race for Treasurer, Democratic incumbent Fiona Ma leads with 58% of the vote. Republican challenger Jack M. Guerrero has 21% and Republican Andrew Do 18%.

Incumbent Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara leads with 37% of the vote. Republican challenger Robert Howell has 18%, Democratic challenger Marc Levine 17% and Republican challenger Greg Conlon also 17%. The close race for second place will determine who runs against Lara in November. Observers believe Lara will have an easier race if the opponent is a Republican.

In the nonpartisan race for Superintendent of Public Instruction, incumbent Tony Thurmond leads with 46% of the vote. Ainye E. Long and George Yang each have 12%, while Lance Ray Christensen has 11%.

In the race for Board of Equalization District 1, Republican Ted Gaines leads with 52.7% of the vote. Democrat Jose S. Altamirano has 22.5%.

In the race for Board of Equalization District 2, Democrat Sally J. Lieber leads with 51.5% of the vote. Republican Peter Coe Verbica has 28.7%.

In the race for Board of Equalization District 3, Democrat Tony Vazquez leads with 62.7% of the vote. No Party Preference candidate Y. Marie Manvel has 24.4%.

Legislative Races

This decade’s recently completed redistricting, though it made significant changes in legislative district boundaries throughout the state, appears unlikely to produce significant changes in the overall partisan makeup of the California Legislature. It is clear Democrats will still maintain supermajorities in both the Assembly and Senate and most Republican districts will remain Republican. In other words, candidates’ personalities and policies aside, it appears that the new legislature sworn in after the November election will not be markedly different than the current body.

The question of whether the legislature becomes slightly more liberal or moderate won’t be answered until the fall because there are a handful of competitive races between Democratic candidates in which outside spending by business and labor interests may influence the results.

Other Races of Note

Congresswoman Karen Bass and real estate developer Rick Caruso were the top two vote-getters in Los Angeles’ primary election for mayor on Tuesday night, sending them to a head-to-head runoff in November. This mayoral race was marked by unprecedented spending, primarily from Caruso, who in spite of reportedly spending more than $37.5 million of his own money did not break the halfway point to win the race outright. When the race was called at around 10 p.m., Caruso had 41% of the vote and Bass had 38%.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin was recalled just three years after taking office. Exit polling suggests Boudin was not viewed as being tough enough on crime amid rising crime rates in the city and the state.

The final results of the primary are expected to be certified by July 15, 2022.

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