Former Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach looks to be heading to the state Senate.

Despite having far less campaign cash and endorsements than his main opponent, former County Supervisor John Moorlach has won a state Senate seat representing much of coastal and southern Orange County.

Moorlach maintained a sizable lead over state Assemblyman Don Wagner for most of Tuesday night’s updates after a St. Patrick’s Day special election was held to fill an office vacated when Congresswoman Mimi Walters won her seat back in November.

According to the last Tuesday night vote update from the county Registrar of Voters, Moorlach was out in front with 50.4 percent in the contest for the 37th State Senate District. Wagner was behind with 44.1 percent.

“I’m just giddy!” Moorlach said late Tuesday night. “I feel like tonight I was at my wedding. I’ve smiled so much my teeth muscles are hurting.”

Moorlach described a jubilant party at his headquarters in Newport Beach Tuesday night, with the first returns showing him at 49.7 percent of the vote. The next update had him at 49.8 percent.  The next one put him at 49.9 and the final tally of the evening put him at 50.4 percent, which, if it holds, avoids a May runoff and hands him an impressive victory.

“It was like Super Bowl Sunday,” Moorlach said of watching the updates. When he went over the top, his headquarters exploded, he said. “It was like a Kodak moment.”

The other candidates in the race, Republican Naz Namazi and write-in candidate Louise Stewardson, garnered 3.5 percent and 2.0 percent respectively.

OC Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley said he expected to have about 4,000 mail-in ballots dropped off at the polls Tuesday tabulated by end of business Wednesday. Provisional votes would be reviewed Thursday and a final update is expected Friday, Kelley said.

Both of the leading candidates agree it’s unlikely that the outcome will change in the next few days.

A somber State Assemblyman Don Wagner on late Tuesday night said he was “very disappointed in returns,” Wagner said. “It shows the strength of a county supervisor’s name ID and ballot designation.”

While Wagner said he’d await official announcements on vote totals before conceding, he acknowledged the race is all but over.

Wagner acknowledged he ran an aggressive race, using hit mail to try to counter the high name recognition built by Moorlach.

It didn’t work, Wagner said, largely because county supervisors stay visible in the local community while officials who go up to Sacramento quickly disappear, given that their ability to enact legislation is limited as a minority party member.

“People see the supervisors in and around town.  They see the headlines these guys get, especially when you demagogue issues…like John,” Wagner said.

Tuesday’s special election is the latest in a series of intensifying election clashes between moderate, pro big-business factions and more fiscally conservative, libertarian-leaning wings of the OC GOP.

The political hit mail in the 37th State Senate race was particularly nasty.

The Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs weighed in heavily on the race, leading a contingent of public safety unions and a few other labor groups who spent in excess of a six-figure sum to oppose Moorlach through independent mailers attacking him. Moorlach earned law enforcement union officials’ ire after unsuccessfully waging a lawsuit against retroactive pension benefits for deputies.

That effort bolstered Wagner’s 4-1 fundraising advantage over Moorlach, with more than $371,000 for campaign operations and mailers.

Just like November’s mayoral election in Anaheim – where Mayor Tom Tait stood in stark contrast to an array of business interests like Disney and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas – Moorlach found himself standing up against just about every member of Orange County’s political establishment with nearly every countywide and state official endorsing Wagner.

Wagner slammed Moorlach, 59, as an ideologue who can’t work with others and sees nearly every public policy initiative through the lens of an accountant who concludes that virtually all government is a boondoggle.

He criticized the former CPA – credited with pointing out the 1994 Orange County bankruptcy – for running “a scurrilous, negative campaign based on the principle that ‘everybody is wrong except me, John Moorlach.’ ”

“That’s how he has conducted his public career,” Wagner said. “You either agree with John or you are stupid, and bad and a sellout.”

Wagner, 54, offered himself as a sensible conservative that can work with business and unions and others with the aim of crafting broad-based policy.

“I can vote no without voting ‘hell no’ or poking you in the eye,” said Wagner, a former school board member and Irvine resident who has served two terms in the state Assembly.

Moorlach – who has indeed always kept a fairly independent profile since taking over the treasurer-tax collector’s office after the county bankruptcy – summed up the mountain of endorsements arrayed against him simply.

“Crony capitalism,” said Moorlach, taking aim at much of Orange County’s political establishment.

Independent, libertarian-minded Republican candidates like Moorlach, Tait and Supervisor Shawn Nelson are increasingly running against establishment interests.

The three are all largely opposed to business subsidies and the rising costs of public sector pensions.

Both Tait and Nelson, who are Moorlach’s main endorsements, won their contests against the establishment handily.

Policy battles between the libertarian and big-business OC GOP factions in recent years have centered around subsidies for large public sector projects like Anaheim’s multi-million dollar transportation center called ARTIC, a street car system in Santa Ana, subsidized sports stadiums and installing toll lanes on Interstate 405.

On most of those issues, Tait, Nelson and Moorlach have found themselves as lone no-votes slamming subsidies while their colleagues have supported the projects.

On Tuesday night, Moorlach said it’s no surprise that Republican rank-and-file voters keep sticking with candidates like himself, Tait and Nelson.

“What it says to me is that the voters saw through all the nonsense, the negative campaigning,” Moorlach said. “The voters are getting it. And that’s so encouraging.”

While Moorlach said he was inspired over the voters’ vision, he was troubled by the fact that Orange County’s entire political establishment went along with a plan to bash him with misleading attack ads through the mail.

Moorlach said he understood that Wagner faced a tough choice, given that he had an opponent with high name recognition – which led Wagner to run an aggressive mail campaign. He said he was surprised that officials, like the district attorney and sheriff, went along with it.

“They always say a crisis reveals character,” Moorlach said.

“Everybody should ask yourself what do we do with this sheriff and this DA?” Moorlach said.

“Look at the Dekraii case,” he added, referring to a recent judge’s decision to remove District Attorney Tony Rackauckas from a death penalty case because of repeated unethical behavior by prosecutors.

“I’ll stop there,” Moorlach said. “I’m getting angry and I need to calm down.”

Moorlach said he’ll be refocusing his interests now on the army of new friends he’ll be getting to know up in Sacramento.

And while minority party legislators don’t usually get much done in terms of legislation (and bill submittal deadlines for this year have passed), Moorlach said he’s more interested in sharpening his accountant’s pencil and working with the myriad of agencies that audit and analyze state government.

“I don’t get to do legislation. But I get to do research,” Moorlach said. “I can’t wait to get to work with [Gov.] Jerry Brown on retiree medical [benefits for public employees].”

Don’t expect to find him in bars, or out playing golf with legislators and lobbyists, Moorlach said.

“I’ll go up there and I’ll be working. This is not a frat party for me.”

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