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Political Analysis: San Diego’s Close Races


More than two weeks after the June Primary some local races are still not decided. KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner updates us on election results where the margin of victory is razor thin.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. There are some things that happen frequently in primary elections. There are often large numbers of candidates vying for one political office. And unfortunately, voter turnout for primaries is usually low. But there's another frequent primary event that we are seeing in many races in our recent June primary and that is very close election results. In some cases, a mere handful of votes separates the candidates and it looks like nobody is willing to concede until the last vote is counted. Joining me with the latest on the still undecided races in the June primary is my guest, KPBS Political Correspondent Gloria Penner. Good morning, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Good morning. Maureen. And it is getting exciting. The votes are still being counted.



CAVANAUGH: Now let’s start out with the kind of close races and then we can get into the real nailbiters.

PENNER: Okay. All right.

CAVANAUGH: In San Diego, for District 8 on the city council, David Alvarez got the most votes but who’s going to challenge him in a runoff election in November?

PENNER: It was a crowded field and the two that looked as though they might get to be number two. That was Ben Hueso’s brother, Felipe Hueso, and B.D. Howard, who walked the precinct. But it looks like Howard is slipping back a little bit. He is somewhere close to 300 votes behind Felipe Hueso. So at this point with that many votes to go, 4000 still to be counted through the entire county, it looks to me as though Felipe Hueso has it.

CAVANAUGH: Now one of the surprises in this primary was that both county supervisors up for reelection are being forced into runoff elections.

PENNER: They are.

CAVANAUGH: Now in District 4, Ron Roberts got about 48% of the vote but who will be challenging him in November?

PENNER: There’s no doubt now. It will be Stephen Whitburn. And actually the two of them, Roberts and Whitburn, have already started attacking each other. The campaign has begun and it’s all centered on what critics call the slush fund or, as the supervisors like to talk about it, the discretionary fund. And so it has started. It is Roberts and Whitburn. Jackson is about 4% behind Whitburn. That’s about, oh, 3000 votes so I don’t think she’s going to catch up.

CAVANAUGH: Now since the vote was so reasonably close between Whitburn and Jackson, will there be a split in the Democratic Party going into the runoff?

PENNER: That’s going to be an interesting point because most of the people that ran against him, practically all, I think, were Democrats. So if the Democrats can kind of make it a cohesive vote against Ron Roberts, it is their chance because it is a Democratic district, there are many more Democrats, 2-to-1 against Republicans, and the head of the local Democratic Party, Jess Durfee, said that the Democrats are likely to have a high turnout and the Democrats are going to be behind getting Whitburn elected. So I think that we’re going to see a hot race there.

CAVANAUGH: Well, speaking of hot races…


CAVANAUGH: …then there are the two Democrats vying for the State Senate seat in the 40th District. Do we know who’s won that race, Mary Salas or Juan Vargas?

PENNER: Well, that took a lot of investigation on my part because the 40th State Senate crosses three different counties, the Imperial County, Riverside County and San Diego County. And although it looked as though Mary Salas had won fairly handily—I almost don’t want to use that word—but with a significant margin in San Diego County, when I started checking things out in the other counties, it looks as though it’s not as optimistic for her. Imperial County came out strongly for Vargas and Riverside County kind of split it. So what I did was I went to the Secretary of State’s website…


PENNER: …and this morning it had changed. Now, listen to this, it is Mary Salas with 50.3% of the vote and Juan Vargas with 49.7% so that’s .6% of the vote between them. In terms of the numbers, out of 46,000 votes cast, we’re talking about less than 300 votes between them. So it ain’t over till it’s over.


PENNER: And there are still many votes to count, not only in San Diego County but it looks as though Imperial County is kind of lagging behind on their vote counting. I have the numbers and I’ll probably dig them up as this conversation continues. Here we go. The last I could find that they had unprocessed vote-by-mail ballots 3,431.


PENNER: Provisional ballots, 703, and damaged ballots 566. So that’s over 4,000 votes and we’re talking about only 300 votes splitting Juan Vargas and Mary Salas, and it looks as though Imperial County to this point favors Vargas.

CAVANAUGH: Interesting.

PENNER: So he hasn’t conceded and I don’t blame him.

CAVANAUGH: Now, whoever wins that will face Brian Hendly (sic), who is the GOP candidate for State Senate in the 40th District. Now, moving on to other races that are virtually tied. As we stand right now, it looks like Charles Lowery has won the special election for Oceanside City Council. What is the spread between Lowery and Lloyd Prosser?

PENNER: Well, I wouldn’t say he’s won it yet.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay.

PENNER: Once again, I checked the votes. There’s only 172 votes now between Prosser and Lowery and, remember, there’s still 4000 votes to be counted in the county. So at this point, if I were Prosser, I would not concede. I would wait until that very last vote is counted. Lowery is considered more friendly to labor maybe. He insists he’s not necessarily aligned with Mayor Wood and Councilmember Sanchez, both of whom are friendly to labor. And if he is the person who gets in—and he’s a former owner of a bakery shop—he will only serve until November because this is a special election which was called to fill the seat of Rocky Chavez, who resigned in December to become the State Undersecretary of Veterans Affairs. It was a Schwarzenegger appointment. And so this is just a few months and in these few months there are going to be some hot issues to discuss in the Oceanside City Council. One of them will be the city’s public safety unions. There’ll be negotiations with that. And then there’s the city’s new trash hauling contract with Waste Management of North County. Those are really very fiery issues. And so Lowery or maybe even Prosser are going to have to face the music with those two issues.

CAVANAUGH: So there’s no runoff involved in this. Whoever gets the most votes, even if it’s one or two votes more, they – they’re the ones in for the four months in Oceanside. Is that right?

PENNER: This is true. It’s a special election. When you have a special election, the top vote-getter wins…


PENNER: …even if they don’t have a 50% plus one majority.

CAVANAUGH: Interesting. Well, over in Poway, in that recall election, I believe there’s less than 100 votes between the two top vote-getters. Tell us about that.

PENNER: There are, indeed, less than 100 votes at this point. Let me just check. Actually, now it’s 101 votes as of this morning.


PENNER: It was kind of fun seeing where they are at this point. It’s Steve Vaus and John Mullin. Mullin is ahead at this point and, as I said, with 101 votes, the percentage spread is somewhere around .60% so that could change, too. You know, these elections really go on and on, primary elections in particular because you usually have such a large field of candidates that you have the votes spread out somewhat and so they tend to be rather close.

CAVANAUGH: There will be a runoff election for San Diego Unified School Board member from District B but longtime board member Katherine Nakamura may not be part of it.

PENNER: An amazing turn of events. She was the definite loser. I mean, I’m predicting that she was the loser because I’m just looking at the numbers now. We have Kevin Beiser who’s a school teacher. He got 38.83% of the votes as of this morning. Steve Rosen has 31% of the votes, and Katherine Nakamura has 30.18%. So we’re talking about she’s more than 300 votes behind second place, so it really looks to me as though she, an incumbent, is not going to make it into the runoff.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. That’s an upset.

PENNER: It is an upset if it’s true. I mean, you know, things could turn around again but at this point it doesn’t look as though she’s going to make it. You know, the voters in Tuesday’s school board election sent a clear message to both incumbents that were running, including John de Beck. They’re not happy with the status quo, so we’ll see now that they have a new superintendent negotiating a contract whether that makes things a little smoother for the new school board.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Gloria, in reporting on this you did mention that Imperial County is perhaps not very – not counting their votes as quickly as perhaps some other counties. When do these vote – these elections have to be certified? When do the votes have to be counted?

PENNER: Well, July 6th is the deadline in San Diego County and the Secretary of State wants the results by July 9th. And then it’ll take her a week to certify. So they really all have to be counted here by July 6th. There may be some wiggle room in the other counties. I notice that in Riverside County they have on their website saying that all damaged ballots have been counted but they still have 7445 provisional ballots that remain to be counted. That’s a big number. And we only have 4000 in San Diego County, and they have 7500 provisionals. Provisionals are interesting anyway because, you know, people will go to polling places and they’ll try to vote and they’re not registered at that polling place and so they’re given a provisional ballot.



CAVANAUGH: …and they have to make sure that the person is – actually lives where they say they live. Now I’m wondering, have any of the candidates in these close races conceded the election?

PENNER: Not one concession thus far, so we’re waiting to see what happens. I don’t blame them. I mean, you put all that into a campaign and if you concede and on July the 6th it turns out that you actually won by one vote or lost by one vote, that would be interesting because, who knows, in some cases we may see a recount.

CAVANAUGH: Now what are – has anybody been talking about a recount so far?

PENNER: Nobody has yet but as of today, second place in the Chula Vista City Council race that is being contested. In one race, it’s a given, only one person ran. In the other, there were several people running and the winner is Larry Breitfelder. He got 35% of the vote. But right now we have a race for second place with Patricia Aguilar and Jill Galvez and both of them, as of this morning, have 21.79% of the vote. Both of them have 6554 votes. This is a definite tie.

CAVANAUGH: Now they haven’t counted every single vote yet, though, right?

PENNER: No. No, not yet.

CAVANAUGH: So, well, it’s a dead heat.

PENNER: We’ll watch this one. You know, and the Registrar of Voters is really good. I mean, they’re updating that website, I would say, at least once a day it appears to me. Every time I go in, I see different figures. So it’s fun to watch.

CAVANAUGH: Now, if, indeed, one of these people – one of the candidates who doesn’t like the outcome, lost by a very small percentage, wants a recount, what kind of – what expectations can they have?

PENNER: Well, first of all there’s some requirements. Two conditions, first, you need a photo finish. I mean, you can’t do this if there’s a wide spread. Oceanside, to a lesser degree Poway, appear to fit that bill. Chula Vista definitely fits. And now, looking at the 40th State Senate between Juan Vargas and Mary Salas, that certainly fits. And, in fact, some states, not California, require a recount when the margin of victory is less than 1%. They require it. In California, none is required. And, second, you need an element of subjectivity in the count, something that your attorney can challenge. For example, it could be that the people in the Registrar of Voters office mishandled enough votes to reverse the vote. In the case of this week – last week’s primary elections, it could be the optical scans because optical scan votes have to be transferred to paper ballots. Mistakes could be made.

CAVANAUGH: And there’s not much of a record of people succeeding in recounts here in San Diego County.

PENNER: There is no record of it. We – I remember the Registrar of Voters, Mikel Haas at the time, told a reporter that recounts had never changed the outcome and so, no, there’s – there is no record of a recount changing the result.

CAVANAUGH: Gloria Penner, thank you so much.

PENNER: You’re welcome.

CAVANAUGH: You can read her weekly blog, Political Fix, on our website at And is where to go.

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