Republican Lanhee Chen leads the California controller primary, but faces an uphill battle to win in November and break 16-year GOP drought for statewide office. His likely opponent is Malia Cohen, who has the support of labor and the Democratic Party.
In the race for California controller, the June 7 primary was, in many ways, the main event.
Based on voter registration, it was widely expected that Lanhee Chen, the sole Republican in the race, would land one of two spots to advance to the general election. And as of Wednesday, Chen had 37% of the vote — one of the stronger showings recently for a Republican in a statewide top-two primary.
But the bigger question was which of the four Democrats would advance — and based on simple math, grab a head start to win in November.
As of Wednesday, Cohen had reaped 22.5% of the vote — with Yvonne Yiu, a city council member from Monterey Park in Southern California, trailing at 15.1% despite spending nearly $6 million of her own money.
Yiu is doing better, however, than state Sen. Steve Glazer (just 11.3% of the vote) and Ron Galperin, the only candidate with “controller” next to their name on the ballot as city controller from Los Angeles (10.2%).
On Monday morning, Galperin conceded second place to Cohen. “I am very proud of the coalition we built and the support our campaign earned in such a brief period of time – and of the focus we have brought to improving how our state works,” he said in a statement.
Why Chen and Cohen?
Chen had the full support of the Republican Party. His primary message that California needs an independent financial watchdog outside the Democratic power structure appealed to several major newspaper editorial boards, and to voters.
Cohen had the big advantages of the official California Democratic Party’s blessing, plus endorsements from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, seven statewide constitutional officers and numerous members of Congress and the Legislature. She also had the backing of, and more than $1.3 million from, influential labor groups, including nurses and teachers.
“The coalition of support is what got us here,” Cohen told CalMatters Thursday. “You’re judged by the company you keep, and what distinguished our campaign is our base was broad and wide, and it continues to grow.”
Consultant Garry South said that while party endorsements don’t always make a difference, they can be impactful in a competitive down-ballot race such as controller, especially when the candidates are not well-known statewide.
“It can be effective in cases in primaries where you have multiple Democrats running,” he said.
It’s also helpful financially: Having the party’s seal of approval gives a candidate access to donors and other resources.
That’s more helpful in the general election, Cohen said.
But Cohen was smart about how she spent her money, campaign strategist Dana Williamson said at a Sacramento Press Club post-primary discussion Thursday. That included buying television time and spending cash early in the Bay Area, where she has name recognition from eight years on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
What’s ahead for the fall
According to Cohen, the challenge is getting voters excited about the election.
She plans to focus her campaign on equity, especially when it comes to helping women and working families, and transparency — “not just talking about transparency but living that and sharing that message,” she said.
Cohen has criticized Chen for not disclosing whether he voted for former president Donald Trump, or his stance on abortion.
Chen, a longtime policy advisor widely hailed as a rising star within the GOP, has said that he believes Joe Biden was legitimately elected to the presidency.
But his positions, or lack thereof, aren’t the only challenges he faces. It’s math: To compete in November, he must draw significant support from registered Democrats and no-party preference voters. Republicans make up only 24% of California’s registered voters, while 47% are registered as Democrats.
In a statement on primary night, Chen acknowledged his uphill battle: “To win in November will require an effort that hasn’t been seen in our state in a long time.”
He’s trying to break a 16-year losing streak for Republicans for statewide offices. Their last victory was in 2006, when Republican Steve Poizner was elected insurance commissioner and Arnold Schwarzenegger was reelected governor.
“My biggest challenge is that I'm not a career politician who will benefit from the help of special interests with deep pockets to help communicate my message across this enormous state,” Chen said in a statement to CalMatters.
Though the state Republican Party plans to focus its resources on toss-up congressional races to help the GOP retake control of the U.S. House, it's enthusiastic about Chen.
“From the beginning, Lanhee Chen has emphasized his desire to bring oversight and efficiency to the state, something California Democrat offices lack,” Republican National Committee spokesperson Hallie Balch added in an email. “The state party and the Republican National Committee are excited to get boots on the ground and keep reaching out to voters to elect Republicans up and down the ballot.”
But longtime political observers warn about too much enthusiasm for Chen.
South pointed to the lesson of Ashley Swearengin, then the mayor of Fresno, who ran as a Republican for controller in 2014. She led with 25% in the primary against three Democrats and another Republican. But one-on-one in the general election lost to current Controller Betty Yee by 54% to 46%.
Mike Madrid, a longtime GOP consultant, said while he believes Chen is brilliant, it’s difficult to overcome California’s huge Democratic majority. And it doesn’t help that Chen won’t say whether he voted for Trump, in apparent fear of angering the Republican base.
“A lot of these rising stars who think they could have it both ways have made a massive strategic tactical blunder,” Madrid said. “They stayed silent during an extraordinarily dangerous time in our nation's history and that poor judgment will define their capacity to be elected.”
“We are in an era of hyper-politicization,” he added. “There’s no evidence to suggest that is going to change.”
more on the controller campaign
In a 70-minute interview with CalMatters reporters, Lanhee Chen, the only Republican running for state controller, talks about his priorities and how he would work with Democrats in power.
Democrat Malia Cohen wants to expand the role of state controller and advance equity and diversity in the job. In an 80-minute interview with CalMatters, she says the state’s COVID response proves the need to do better on both those goals.
In the crowded primary for California controller, Yvonne Yiu is betting that spending millions of her own money is her ticket to the top two. But the track record of self-funding candidates in statewide races is mixed.