In summary

These days, campaigning doesn’t just mean attacking all challengers. A sly boost for a favorite opponent can also prove useful.

Steve Fox appears to have once again secured himself a spot on the general-election ballot, but no one can agree on how he did it.

As a matter of arithmetic, the answer is simple. Ballots in his Antelope Valley Assembly race are still being counted, but the Democratic attorney from Lancaster, who held the seat between 2012 and 2014 and has been trying to get it back ever since, maintains a significant second-place lead, with 17% of the votes at last count. That’s far behind Assemblyman Tom Lackey, the only Republican in the field of eight, who has 55%, but it’s nearly 6,000 votes ahead of the third-place finisher. 

Fox has twice been accused of sexual harassment, and his surprise victory has not been welcome news to much of the California Democratic establishment, with one political consultant likening it to a war crime. How was Fox apparently able to snag one of the top two spots needed under California’s nonpartisan primary system to advance to November? That remains a matter of some debate.

It’s also the latest in what is now a common story in California politics. Thanks to the state’s election system, in which all non-presidential candidates compete on the same ballot and only the first- and second-place winners move on to the general election regardless of party affiliation, campaigning doesn’t just mean attacking all political foes. Sometimes it helps to boost your favorite opponent.

Case in point: Fox’s probable second-place finish.

The simplest explanation may come down to familiarity. He’s run for this Assembly seat every two years since 2012 and held various state and local positions since the 1990s.

“I’ve earned a lot of credit with the community, and I spend all the time in the community,” he said. “A lot of good deeds and a lot of hard work.”

But Bill Wong, political consultant for Democrats in the Assembly, points to something else. He cites independent spending by the California Association of Realtors and other business and labor groups that poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into advertisements supporting Fox and lambasting the Democrat favored by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, Johnathon Ervin.

Ambiguity is now a feature of California elections. Some ads may have a dual purpose.

“It’s probably a crime against humanity, what they did,” Wong told CalMatters last week.

Wong and other Sacramento Democrats regarded Lackey, a Republican in a district where Democrats outnumber GOP voters by 11%, as a vulnerable incumbent. But they also viewed Fox, with his history of alleged impropriety, as an exceedingly flawed challenger. 

Wong’s view, shared by some Democratic activists in the district: The business interests saw Fox as the weakest candidate against Lackey, whom they prefer, in November and figured a Fox vs. Lackey contest would give Lackey the best shot at the seat. 

A committee funded by the Realtors spent $183,445 supporting Fox. Another group, funded by car dealers, developers, unionized prison guards and the Realtors, spent $125,218 opposing Ervin. Under state campaign law, such independent committees can spend unlimited money on political activity as long as they don’t coordinate with a candidate’s campaign.

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Separate committees run by the Realtors, prison guards and car dealers together also contributed $21,900 directly to the Lackey campaign.

“You have to ask why somebody would come in to help the weaker candidate,” said Ervin, the third-place candidate. “Was it to help Lackey? Potentially.”

“This was organized and put together for a reason, and it’s pretty darn shameful,” he added.

A spokesperson for the Realtors said no one who manages their organization’s political spending was available to comment. The California New Car Dealers Association declines to speak about its expenditures. 

Fox said he appreciated the outside help from the Realtors, which he said took him by surprise. He said he did not think the Realtors viewed him as the weakest candidate, nor that their spending played a major role in the outcome. 

“I just don’t think they liked Johnathon,” he said. “A poll was taken before any of the Realtor involvement, and I came in second place….I think I would have won with or without their help.

Making things even more complicated, other Democratic activists also say it wasn’t the Realtors and car dealers who swung the election for Fox, but their own on-the-ground machinations. 

Denise Latanzi, an Antelope Valley Democratic organizer, said she joined the campaign of another Democratic candidate, Eric Ohlsen, to draw votes away from Ervin. In Latanzi’s telling, Lackey was sure to win the race no matter who his opponent was, so her top priority was to tank Ervin, whom she referred to as a “bully” and “misogynistic.”

“Our thinking in the beginning was that anybody who doesn’t like Steve Fox is going to vote for the alternative,” she said. “It was all about giving people alternatives” and splitting up the non-Fox Democratic vote.

“I thought it was time to send the Democratic Party a message about consistently choosing the wrong candidate,” she said. “We killed their chosen candidate.”

An ad that Gov. Newsom ran against Republican candidate John Cox in the 2018 primary, vilifying him for liberals but highlighting his conservative bonafides for Republican voters.

Ervin declined to talk about Latanzi’s characterization of events, or of him, on the record. 

Whether the result of the race is the product of outside spending, Democratic infighting, simple name recognition or a little of each is likely to remain an unsettled question.

Such ambiguity is now a common feature of California elections.

In the 2018 gubernatorial election, Gavin Newsom ran a television ad attacking Republican opponent John Cox for “standing with Donald Trump and the NRA.” At the time, Cox and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a Democrat, were contending for second place, to run against Newsom. The ad, vilifying Cox for liberals but highlighting his conservative bonafides, may have strengthened Cox’s position among Republicans and improved his odds of placing second in the primary — and becoming an easy general-election challenger for Newsom.

It can be hard to tell whether some ads have a dual purpose.  

Late last month, the Los Angeles Times reported on a “mystery mailer” that peppered households across a San Diego congressional district, promoting the conservative credentials of a little-known Republican named Chris Stoddard. The providence of what seemed on its face to be a Republican get-out-the-vote effort remains unclear. 

But one candidate, Georgette Gómez, has accused fellow Democrat Sara Jacobs of supporting the Republican, who would be a much weaker general-election foe. Jacobs’ campaign denied that, though it paid for other ads highlighting Jacobs’ conservative views, much as Newsom’s ad touted Cox’s. 

At the moment, both Jacobs and Gómez hold the top two spots. 

And in a state Senate race in Stockton, the two candidates who now appear most likely to make it to November are Democratic Assemblywoman Susan Eggman and Republican Jim Ridenour.

The race was among the most expensive legislative contests, with outside groups spending more than $2 million to support or oppose the five candidates. Ridenour, in contrast, spent only $7,000 on his campaign, and he didn’t attend the contest’s highest-profile debates or the Modesto Bee editorial board forum.

But at last count, it’s Ridenour, a former mayor of Modesto, who currently holds second place with 28% of the vote. Eggman is first.

Assembly member Susan Eggman. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

As in the Antelope Valley race, the most benign explanation for Ridenour’s apparent second-place finish, is name recognition. He was mayor from 2003 to 2012. His brother sits on the Modesto City Council, and his nephew is a law-enforcement union president — though both endorsed Mani Grewal, a Democrat who was also in the race.

But Ridenour may have also received some last-minute assistance from an unlikely source: the campaign of the progressive Democrat in the contest, Eggman. 

In the days leading up to the March 3 election, the Eggman campaign ran an ad on a local Fox News channel telling voters that Ridenour “supports Donald Trump,” is a member of the National Rifle Association and, as mayor, “opposed higher taxes.” The short television segment was framed as an attack, characterizing Ridenour as “too conservative” for the area. But for local Fox News watchers, it could have helped bolster the candidate’s right-of-center credentials to propel him into second place.

Andrew Acosta, a consultant for the Eggman campaign, said that the ad aimed at Ridenour was simply meant to “highlight where Ridenour is on the issues.”

“He is too conservative for the valley,” he said, denying that the spot was actually an attempt to boost Ridenour over the moderate Grewal, who might represent a bigger electoral threat in November.  

“Everyone has a theory in these open-primary races,” said Acosta. “At the end of the day, the voters are the ones who make these decisions.”

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Ben Christopher

Ben covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written...