As poll workers Tuesday collected the last trickle of votes in a statewide primary expected to draw one of the lowest turnouts in California's history, frontrunners in several area races appeared to be headed for spots on the November general election ballot — though one contest was a bit tighter than expected.
Former Newport Beach mayor and longtime area conservative political insider Keith Curry led a crowded field of contenders to represent the 74th state Assembly District by a relatively slim margin, despite far outspending his opponents.
"I am gratified by the response from the voters, particularly from Newport Beach," he said, adding that "attacks" by Huntington Beach Mayor Matthew Harper on Newport's spending on public facilities were proven ineffective. "I look forward to a spirited campaign in November, talking about how to lower taxes, create jobs, protect Proposition 13 and get California growing again."
Curry has consistently led in fundraising and secured endorsements from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) and former Sen. Marian Bergeson, so what seemed to be the bigger question heading into Tuesday's race was which of the four remaining candidates — Republicans Harper and Emanuel Patrascu, and Democrats Anila Ali and Karina Onofre — would face Curry in the general election later this year.
But as of just after 10 p.m., with absentee ballots and a small percentage of precincts reporting, Harper trailed Curry by just 4.6%, having garnered 24.3% of the votes counted in the district, which includes Huntington Beach, Irvine, Laguna Beach, Laguna Woods and Newport Beach.
Harper said he was having a "low-key" night Tuesday, as he prepared for the bigger battle to come.
"I'm going to love when we finally calculate this out — the cost per vote," he said. "I'm feeling great.... Curry was clearly not able to sell to a majority of voters."
Nevertheless, that two Republicans could be head-to-head in the general election was unsurprising, given the district's registration, said Fred Smoller, an associate political science professor at Chapman University who closely follows Orange County politics.
And the recognizability that comes with having led two of the district's major cities certainly gave both Curry and Harper an edge over Patrascu, who works for Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) and previously ran for Laguna Beach City Council. Onofre, a businesswoman who also lives in Irvine, previously ran for Santa Ana City Council. Ali, an Irvine teacher, was a political newcomer.
With about 19.3% of the vote, Ali was solidly in third place.
"This was more than we expected," she said Tuesday.
Onofre, who switched from Republican to Democrat mid-campaign, came in fourth with 16%. Patrascu was in last with 11.5%.
Under the state's open primary system, which got its first full-scale test Tuesday, the top two vote-getters in the primary will move on to the general election in November, regardless of political party. The system applies to races for the state Legislature and Congress, as well as statewide office.
Though Curry and Harper have tended to agree on general conservative principles, such as curbing spending, the two have found themselves at odds on more local issues — most notably, how to balance the sacred California tradition of burning wood in beach fire rings with the health concerns they pose for residents living nearby.
Curry has pushed for city-by-city control over where beachgoers are allowed to burn, largely in response to worries raised by Newport residents who have lobbied hard to rid the city's beaches of wood-burning pits. Harper, on the other hand, stood by Huntington's charge to prevent regional air quality regulators from imposing any rules that could threaten even a handful of the city's wood-burning fire pits.
Still, Smoller predicted Monday that the race heading into the general election will likely boil down to a simpler opposition:
"Huntington Beach has the numbers, and Newport Beach has the money," he said.
Orange County Supervisor race
Meanwhile, current 74th District Assemblyman Allan Mansoor (R-Costa Mesa) lagged far behind state Board of Equalization Member Michelle Steel in the race to represent the Orange County Board of Supervisors' 2nd district.
Unlike in the state primary system, candidates for countywide or local office can still win outright with more than 50% of the vote.