20181030-bc-newsom

Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom campaigns in Bakersfield earlier this month with T.J. Cox, right, who holds a slim lead over David Valadao in the 21st Congressional District race, and Melissa Hurtado, left. Newsom will be swearing in Hurtado Monday as the state's 14th Senate District representative.

"Were you surprised?"

I was sitting down with Melissa Hurtado, asking her about her Election Day triumph over Republican Andy Vidak, when, suddenly, the Democratic state senator-elect turned the tables. Now, I was being interviewed.

Me? Surprised?

Well.

The power of incumbency is strong, I said. Vidak, a Hanford grower, is well liked, doesn't ruffle too many feathers and works reasonably well across the aisle.

Yes, I was surprised. More than a little.

Hurtado is largely an unknown commodity. She hails from a Fresno County burg 100 miles north of Bakersfield (Sanger, population 25,000), was raised in a family of humble means and, despite her time on her hometown's city council, is hardly a grizzled political veteran.

She is 30 years old.

That makes her, she believes, the youngest female state senator in California history.

But she didn't just squeeze out some narrow victory. She defeated Vidak by almost 11 percentage points, 55.4 percent to 44.6 percent, doubling her lead, in terms of percentage, in the two weeks since Election Day.

She won by an even wider margin in Kern County, 65.5 percent to 34.5 percent.

Surprised? Yes, and I'm not the only political observer who feels that way.

"Personally, I didn't expect Andy Vidak to go down," Thomas Holyoke, a Fresno State political science professor, told me Nov. 27. "Valley Democrats have finally learned from the past. Their ground game really seemed to have made a difference. Political advertising on television only gets you so far. People get numb to that.

"It does seem like the blue wave did reach the Central Valley after all."

The wave did not overtake Republican Reps. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield or Devin Nunes of Fresno, although both men experienced the closest races of their political lives. But it swallowed up Rep. Jeff Denham of Modesto, who lost to Democrat Josh Harder, and seems to have brought down David Valadao of Hanford, whose election night lead of 13 percentage points gradually fell away as provisionals and late-arriving vote-by-mail ballots were tabulated.

Democratic challenger TJ Cox leads by all of 436 votes at the moment, but the numbers are trending his way.

David Binder Research, a Northern California company that conducted research on behalf of SEIU California, found ample evidence that efforts to bring out the Latino vote were effective. Although they looked exclusively at the Cox-Valadao race, some of the pro-Cox sentiment doubtlessly overflowed onto Hurtado-Vidak, as well as the 32nd Assembly District victory by Democratic incumbent Rudy Salas, who easily defeated Republican challenger Justin Mendes, a Valadao protege from Hanford, 56.5 percent to 43.5 percent.

Binder Research found that support for Cox among Latinos increased from 56 percent in early August to 70 percent the week of the election. Valadao's Latino support remained flat, 28 percent to 29 percent.

The issue of family separation at the border was a key issue for Latinos. Valadao's perceived positions, as indicated by two party-line votes, were bigger deals for Latino voters than any associations with President Trump.

Next to family separation, the most important issue for Latino voters in the 21st Congressional District was health care; 82 percent said it was a primary reason they voted for Cox.

Hurtado, who listed herself on the ballot as a health care advocate, could well have cashed in that ticket, too.

Hurtado was sworn in Dec. 3 as the state's 14th Senate District representative. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the governor-elect, will do the honors in Sacramento.

She's considering a second swearing-in ceremony down here in the district, perhaps in Bakersfield. 

Based on her Kern County vote numbers, that seems only right.

•••

Holyoke, the Fresno State professor, came away with the same impression I had about voter behavior by party preference.

In virtually all cases, Republicans held leads, or were close, after the first batch of numbers were announced immediately after polls closed on election night. These were by-and-large early-arriving vote-by-mail ballots; apparently, Republicans are more likely than Democrats or left-leaning others to know who they're voting for and commit to it with a postage stamp. But as later-arriving mail ballots and provisionals were processed, Democrats across the board pulled away or made it closer.

"What's consistently breaking in Democrats' favor is these late-arriving vote-by-mails," Holyoke said. "There does seem to be a tendency among some Democrats to wait until the last second to do it."

Consequently, he, like yours truly, jumped the gun on almost everything, calling elections for one candidate or another before it was a done deal. In a couple of cases, it wasn't.

"On election night, we should have been cognizant of the sheer number of uncounted ballots," he said. "Up to half the votes were still out there."

•••

Cox's possible victory — I'm not ready to say apparent — has been characterized as an upset — including recently, in these pages — but the writing was on one guy's wall.

Last summer FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver gave Cox a 64.34 percent probability of winning. But then the Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball said the district would go to Valadao, so the pundits were split.

•••

California Democrats' lucky number is seven.

Cox's lead, if it turns into a victory, means the Democratic Congressional Committee will have been seven-for-seven in its targeted California congressional races. It also means that of California's 53 seats in Congress, Republicans control just seven — two in the Central Valley, two in the Inland Empire, two in the rural north and one in San Diego County.

••

While most of California ponders the ramifications of races like Cox-Valadao and Denham-Harder, a few of us are scratching our heads over one odd little turn of events in a Bakersfield City Council election: Ward 1 incumbent Willie Rivera is still leading in his race, but by the slimmest of margins.

Rivera is ahead of challenger Gilberto de la Torre by a scant 175 votes. Yes, that's the Gilbert de la Torre who faces allegations of voter fraud for having allegedly cast more than one vote in a previous election. Third-place Marvin Dean trails Rivera by 876 votes.

Kern County has about 2,900 votes left to count; by one estimate that equals 1,740 votes in Bakersfield, although there's no telling how many might be from Ward 1.

Robert Price's column appears Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Reach him at rprice@bakersfield.com or @stubblebuzz. The opinions expressed are his own.

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