What’s This? A Republican Leads the Race for Secretary of State?!

Ballot scanning machine,  November 6, 2012. (Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED)
Ballot scanning machine, Nov. 6, 2012. (Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED)

I did a double take when I first looked at the new Field Poll showing Republican Pete Peterson leading all candidates in the race for secretary of state with 30 percent of likely voters, followed by Democratic state Sen. Alex Padilla from Los Angeles with 17 percent.

It is very rare to see a GOP candidate at the top of any statewide poll in California. In the race for governor, by contrast, Jerry Brown pulls 57 percent to 17 percent for Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly. But then again, it is still early. And the real leader in the secretary of state race is “None of the Above,” since 44 percent say they’re undecided.

The last Republican to win a statewide election here was Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, and before him the GOP Winner’s Circle is — well, you don’t really have enough people to make a circle. So what gives this time?

Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo simply says “it’s mainly because most Republicans are coalescing around Peterson’s candidacy.”

Republicans make up a shrinking portion of the California electorate — now less than 30 percent, right where Peterson’s number is at. Padilla, on the other hand, is splitting the vote with others, including another Democrat, Derek Cressman.

“Padilla actually benefited quite a bit from (Democrat) Leland Yee’s withdrawal from the race,” says DiCamillo, noting that until getting arrested in an FBI sting and dropping out, Yee was close behind Padilla in the polls.

“Padilla remains the most formidable of the Democrats in the race,” says DiCamillo. “There’s a huge market of voters out there that he can still attempt to attract. I would say he has a greater upside potential to expand his base” by getting Democrats and nonpartisan voters (now one-fifth of the electorate in California) to support him between now and November.

One interesting note in the poll: Political insiders and journalists are well acquainted with another secretary of state candidate running as an “independent” candidate with no party preference: Dan Schnur. The ever quotable former-Republican-consultant-turned-academic pulls just 4 percent of the vote. It’s the first time the Field Poll has ever measured support for a “nonpartisan” candidate for statewide office, according to DiCamillo.

“Dan doesn’t have the opportunity to attract partisan voters because he has no party affiliation next to his name. That may actually be hindering his campaign a bit.”

It is still early. Peterson, who’s Hollywood-handsome in a Clark Kent kind of way, could do well on TV but has no money — less than $2,000 cash on hand in his latest campaign finance report. Schnur does better, having $313,300 in the bank, but they all trail Padilla, who’s sitting on $614,426.

The one wild card is the ongoing FBI investigation in Sacramento. The public’s approval of the Legislature has been dropping since scandals enveloped three Democratic state senators, including Yee. That can’t help Alex Padilla. Then again, it may not matter because come election day it may be enough just to have a “D” next to your name on the ballot in this deeply blue state.

One thing’s for sure — with California ranking 49th ahead of only Mississippi in a new Pew Charitable Trusts report ranking state elections performance, the next secretary of state will have plenty to do.

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