Early results looked strong for two Democratic challengers running in some of California’s most conservative congressional districts in rural parts of the state. But as more ballots get counted, the gap is widening — a shift from years past.
Brynne Kennedy fought a tough campaign, outraising incumbent Congressman Tom McClintock by nearly half a million dollars. The Roseville native came to politics after years working in tech, running on a message of bringing voters together around a shared, nonpartisan agenda for the region, which stretches from Lake Tahoe to Fresno.
Tuesday night counts showed her neck and neck with the congressman, but that gap has grown as election workers count more ballots. As of Thursday afternoon, McClintock has a 6 percentage point advantage.
“There’s a lot of votes to be tallied here. We’re certainly optimistic about the votes yet to come,” said Todd Stenhouse, Kennedy's campaign manager. “It’s a beyond historic level of bonkers turnout.”
The McClintock campaign remains unphased by the early numbers that showed Kennedy trailing by a small margin, though the Associated Press has yet to call the race. Chris Baker, spokesperson for the congressman, said he expected to see that happen this year.
“The earlier votes were more Democrat leaning,” he said. “The later votes appear to be heavily Republican.”
Baker attributes that to more Democrats voting early or by mail, while many Republicans waited to cast their ballots in person or drop them off at county drop boxes.
David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State, says that trend is the exact opposite of what he’s seen in years past, where Republican voters in the district tend to cast their ballots earlier.
“Absentees a generation ago that were first reported, always trended conservative, always ran to the Republican side,” he said. “That narrative is flipped on its head in this crazy election year of 2020.”
Audrey Denney faced a similar situation further north, in California’s 1st Congressional District. She ran for the second time against Congressman Doug LaMalfa, who has represented a vast swath of the state since 2002. The Associated Press called the race for Congressman LaMalfa on Wednesday, with 74% of the votes counted. As of Thursday morning, he led 56% to 44%.
Denney lost by about 28,000 votes in her first race against the congressman in 2018. She built both campaigns around bringing a new voice to the Northstate. She refused corporate donations and raised over $2 million, nearly double what her opponent raised.
The defeat aside, Denney said she is optimistic about the future of her platform in the region.
“I'm incredibly proud of the movement that we've created,” she said. “I think that the work that we've done has changed the political landscape in the Northstate forever.”
The win for LaMalfa and lead for McClintock are not unique to these districts, said McCuan, the political scientist. Moderate Democrats did not perform as expected this election cycle across the country.
The “blue wave” that some anticipated did not materialize, making it harder for candidates like Denney and Kennedy to prevail. And significant fundraising from both campaigns did not make up the difference.
“The one thing that we haven't seen is that the heavy amount of spending made a difference or paid dividends for candidates moving forward,” he said. “We didn’t see the bang for the buck.”
Mike Madrid, a longtime GOP consultant and co-founder of the Lincoln Project, said these results are further evidence of intense polarization across the country. Party affiliation mattered more than fundraising at the end of the day.
“A moderate Democrat is still a Democrat,” he said. “So I think that's the overriding determining factor.”
Meanwhile, as Denney reflects on her campaign and consultants look to understand this election cycle, a spokesperson for the LaMalfa campaign said the Congressman spent Wednesday afternoon driving around the district, taking down campaign signs one by one.
“I feel good about it,” Congressman LaMalfa said on Thursday. “There’s still a bunch of counting to go so we don’t know what the margin is.”
In the coming days, LaMalfa said he’ll be closely watching the race for the White House as he plans for his next term.
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