Don Wagner, the Republican mayor of Irvine, held a 5-point lead over Democrat former Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez at the end of election night counting Tuesday for a county supervisor seat, with thousands of ballots remaining to be counted.
Republicans have safely won all five supervisor seats for more than a decade, though elections for the powerful Board of Supervisors are getting more competitive. The possibility of a tilt in the board majority next year has energized both major parties to try to win seats.
Board members oversee the sprawling $6 billion-per-year county government in charge of law enforcement budgets and contracts, as well as homeless services, mental health programs, child protective services, county regional parks, among many other duties.
The outcome of the 3rd District race isn’t final. At least 13 percent of the overall ballots have yet to be counted, with another potential wave of votes arriving in the coming days from ballots placed in the mail on Election Day. Additional result updates are scheduled each day this week.
The final round of election night results, released at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, showed Wagner holding a lead with 41.6 percent of the vote, followed by Sanchez with 36.6 percent and Republican Kris Murray trailing with 7.5 percent. Sanchez was the only Democrat in a crowded field of seven candidates for the 3rd District seat.
Wagner’s lead ahead of Sanchez grew from the first round of results Tuesday evening, from 3.1 points to 5.0 points.
There were 9,233 ballots estimated left to count after the final election night update, not including mail-in ballots that haven’t arrived yet, according to election officials. The results at the end of election night were for 60,431 ballots already counted.
More than half of what’s known to remain are mail-in ballots turned in at polling places. That practice has been aided in recent elections through campaigns going door-to-door to collect mail-in ballots from voters, known as “ballot harvesting.”
In the November election, Democrats tended to gain against Republican opponents as more ballots were counted. Experts attributed the gains to Republicans tending to vote earlier and Democrats’ strength with ballot harvesting, as well as get-out-the-vote efforts on Election Day.
In one case from November, Democrat Congressional candidate Gil Cisneros trailed by 5.2 points at the end of election night counting, but later gained ground as more ballots were counted and won the race.
The winner of Tuesday’s special election will finish out the remainder of Spitzer’s term and will face re-election again next March, when Spitzer would have been up for re-election.
Republicans held all five OC supervisor seats for a dozen years until this January, when Democrat Doug Chaffee was sworn in after winning the November race for the north OC seat formerly held by Republican Shawn Nelson.
Wagner received major financial support from Great Park developer Five Point, which gave to the Friends of the Great Park PAC, which in turn gave to the Engage OC committee that spent directly on ads supporting Wagner for the election.
Sanchez received major financial backing from the largest union for county workers, the Orange County Employees Association, through their independent expenditure committee.
Democrats are trying gain a three-person majority on the board in early 2021 by flipping another Republican supervisor’s seat next year – that of Supervisor Andrew Do, who won election in 2016 by a 0.4 percent margin.
Among the five supervisor districts, Do’s central county 1st District has the strongest Democrat advantage in voter registration, with 41.7 percent of voters registered as Democrats and 24.4 percent registered as Republicans, according to the latest data from county election officials.
The 3rd District runs from Irvine up through Orange, Tustin, Anaheim Hills, and Villa Park to Yorba Linda. The district also includes the county’s inland canyon communities that fall outside of cities. Republicans have a 3.4-point advantage in voter registration in the district, with 34.7 percent of registered voters to Democrats’ 31.3 percent.
Wagner pointed during the campaign to his work as Irvine’s mayor and state Assembly representative, including Irvine’s status as having the lowest crime rate of large OC cities and development of the Orange County Great Park.
Sanchez, who represented central Orange County for 20 years in the neighboring 46th Congressional District, focused her campaign on her track record of bringing federal and state funding to the county.
Murray, who served as an Anaheim councilwoman from 2010 to 2018, focused her campaign on the opening of homeless shelters in Anaheim during her tenure, as well as the creation of the ARTIC transportation center.
Homelessness and cost of housing rank among the top voter concerns countywide, as residents also express concerns about adding homeless shelters or housing near their neighborhoods. County supervisors have been facing pressure from federal civil rights lawsuits to address the county’s homeless shelter shortage and add more shelter beds, as well as using existing state and federal dollars to provide physical and mental health services to homeless people.
Other issues facing county government are sharply escalating law enforcement spending, a fragmented and troubled mental health system, and Sacramento short-changing Orange County’s property tax revenue to the tune of $200 million or more per year.
An unknown number of ballots in Tuesday’s election won’t reach election officials until later this week.
Under a new state law that took effect last year, mail-in ballots can be mailed on Election Day and still be counted, as long as they’re received by the registrar by 8 p.m. Friday.
Additional updates are scheduled to be released at 5 p.m. each day, starting Wednesday.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].