This tumultuous year has proven the essential nature of nonpartisan local news. Every day we bring you news critical to staying informed and active in the community. Join us with a tax-deductible donation.
Voters sent mixed messages to Orange County’s scandal-scarred law enforcement agencies Tuesday, with incumbent District Attorney Tony Rackauckas scraping by with a 4 percent lead and a more decisive margin for Undersheriff Donald Barnes, who ended election night more than 20 points ahead in his race to become Sheriff.
Rackauckas, a Republican, is facing his toughest re-election yet, with the tentative results of Tuesday’s primary election giving him just under 40 percent of votes, followed by Republican county Supervisor Todd Spitzer with 35.3 percent and Democrat Brett Murdock with 21.5 percent.
Rackauckas took office in 1999 and has been re-elected each year by high margins, running twice unopposed. Spitzer, Rackauckas’ former protégé who said he has long dreamed of being DA, was fired from the DA’s office in 2010, sparking an ongoing personal and political feud between the two.
Although Rackauckas enjoyed the support of a number of elected public officials, Spitzer raised and spent far more money, ending May with more than $978,000 in his war chest. Rackauckas ended that same period with $18,101 in the bank and more than $48,000 in debt.
“It was a bad night for Tony Rackauckas and a surprisingly good night for Todd Spitzer,” said Fred Smoller, a Chapman University political science professor. “Spitzer’s never missed an opportunity to attack, it’s been constant.”
The first round of returns on Election Day, the result of vote-by-mail ballots and early voting, showed Rackauckas with a 7.8 percent lead over Spitzer. By Wednesday evening, that lead had narrowed to 4.1 percent.
There still are more than 180,000 ballots left to count, according to an estimate by the Registrar of Voters, meaning the final results likely won’t be available for several days.
Spitzer said Tuesday’s results suggest voters are dissatisfied with Rackauckas, and argued that when November comes, those who voted for Democrats in June will vote for him.
“Every election is a referendum on the incumbent. When I look and see that more than 60 percent voted for someone other than Rackauckas, that’s substantial dissatisfaction with the incumbent,” Spitzer said. “I think I’ll pick up all the other votes that did not go with Rackauckas.”
Dave Gilliard, a political consultant for Rackauckas based in Sacramento, said despite Spitzer’s heavy spending and a “false and negative” ad campaign, Rackauckas leads the race.
“The November campaign will focus on Tony’s record of keeping Orange County safe and on the maturity and emotional stability needed as Orange County’s District Attorney,” said Gilliard in an email, referring to a common criticism that Spitzer is erratic and mercurial.
“With overwhelming support from the law enforcement community, Tony Rackauckas is well positioned to win another term in November,” Gilliard added.
Murdock did not return a request for comment Wednesday.
Both Rackauckas and retiring Sheriff Sandra Hutchens faced growing criticism in recent years for the jailhouse snitch scandal – which has sparked both state and federal investigations into the illegal use of jail informants by the DA and Sheriff’s Department.
Rackauckas, who generally has not pursued political corruption prosecutions, also faced accusations he interfered in investigations on behalf of political allies. Hutchens also has been criticized for a high-profile jail escape in 2016 and her department’s policies toward cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
Rackauckas appears to be facing a tough battle in November, but Hutchen’s hand-picked successor, Barnes, came close to winning the race outright Tuesday.
Barnes, a Republican, received 50.7 percent of votes compared to Democrat Duke Nguyen, who got 30 percent, according to results posted Wednesday night. The other Republican in the race, Aliso Viejo Mayor Dave Harrington, received 19.3 percent.
If Barnes maintains more than 50 percent of votes when all votes are tallied, he will win the race outright. Otherwise, he’ll face Nguyen in a November run-off.
Gilliard, who is also Barnes’ consultant, said he believed Barnes will win once all votes are counted.
“Voters responded to Don’s vast experience in the department and his promise to continue the programs and strong leadership provided by Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, which has made the Orange County Sheriff Department one of the finest in the nation,” Gilliard said in an email.
Barnes said issues brought up during the campaign, like the informant scandal and jail escape, “have been resolved.”
“[Those issues] are behind us, and the department has proven we’re in a good position,” Barnes said, adding that, if elected, he would focus on improving the county’s jails. “That’s my one area where we will do better than anything else we do.”
He said Tuesday’s election was “more about political parties than public safety policies.”
“The public overlooks the fact that the Sheriff is a nonpartisan office and has an obligation to work with everybody and protect everybody,” Barnes said. “If you look at my endorsements and support, I have relationships with everyone in Orange County, not just one particular party.”
Nguyen’s campaign manager, Ash Alvandi, declined to comment Wednesday, noting there still are thousands of ballots left to count.
Harrington, a former Sheriff’s sergeant who was heavily critical of Barnes and existing management during the campaign, said Wednesday he congratulated Barnes on election night and wishes him success.
“I want the department to be successful and look forward to working with him as a city councilman in Aliso Viejo,” Harrington said.
Contact Thy Vo at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.