Low voter turnout likely killed an independent challenger's bid for Congress, but now the Democrat who made it into the finals faces a daunting vote gap between he and the Republican incumbent.
Rep. Jeff Denham received more than 48 percent of the counted votes in the five-man race for the 10th Congressional District. The Turlock Republican will take on Democrat Jose Hernandez in the November election.
Hernandez got less than 29 percent of Tuesday's primary votes, so he must make up a lot of ground to win.
About 40,000 ballots remain to be counted in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, but that's not expected to change this election's outcome.
"In the end, Denham will finish with under 50 percent ... and he was the only Republican on the ballot," said Hernandez's campaign manager Dan Krupnick.
Krupnick expressed confidence that once Hernandez goes head-to-head with Denham, the Democrat will come out on top.
Three other contenders vied for votes in the primary.
Independent Chad Condit garnered 15 percent, with most of his support coming from Stanislaus County. Democrat Michael Barkley got 5.6 percent, almost all of it from San Joaquin. Independent Troy McComak got slightly more than 2 percent, which wasn't bad considering his campaign spent virtually nothing.
While political polling this spring reportedly showed Condit wasn't a real threat, some thought his family's name recognition and his energetic independent campaign might bump him into second place.
Independents stay home
Low turnout by nonpartisan voters, however, doomed Condit's chance at an upset.
More than 16 percent of the district's registered voters are not aligned with any political party, but very few of them bothered to cast ballots Tuesday.
In Stanislaus, for example, nearly one in four Republicans and Democrats voted in the primary, compared with only about one in nine people with no party preference.
Since Condit had based his campaign on the need for an independent voice in Washington, D.C., getting a strong nonpartisan turnout was crucial.
"If they had come out in big numbers, the election might have had a different outcome," said Nathan Monroe, a political science professor at the University of California at Merced.
Because primary elections used to be just for members of political parties, Monroe said nonpartisan voters "just didn't seem to get the memo" that their votes could make a difference in this new primary format.
This was the first primary election in which the top-two congressional vote-
getters advanced to the November election no matter what party they were from and all registered voters got to participate.
Despite Condit placing third, Monroe said it was an impressive finish.
"For an independent to get 15 percent of the vote is actually very rare," Monroe said. "Independent folks will count this as a victory ... and it should provide encouragement to (nonpartisan) candidates in future elections."
Krupnick said he wasn't surprised by Condit's strong showing.
"People voting for Chad
really were voting against Denham," said Krupnick, who expressed confidence that most Condit voters will support Hernandez in November.
Monroe doubts that.
"My guess is that Hernandez will pick up most of Barkley's votes, but that can't be said for Condit's votes," said Monroe, who grew up and still lives in Hughson.
Qingwen Dong, another university professor who has been following this congressional race, also thinks Hernandez has a big challenge ahead of him to win in November.
Overcoming that nearly 20 percentage point gap in primary votes poses "a huge task" for the Democrat, said Dong, who is chairman of the University of the Pacific's communications department.
"Hernandez still has a chance to catch up, but he has to focus his message to the key audience: It's got to be about local voters," Dong said.
Hernandez, who grew up near Stockton, has lived in Texas most of the past dec-ade. He began renting a room in Modesto this spring, but he hadn't lived within the 10th Congressional District's boundaries before that.
More than 95 percent of Hernandez's reported campaign contributions have come from outside the district.
"His appeal is to a broader audience," said Dong, noting how his ascent from a migrant farmworker family to a NASA space shuttle astronaut attracts followers nationwide. But to win an election in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, Dong said, Hernandez must concentrate on issues that affect people here.
Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2196.
AT A GLANCE
Stanislaus County has more than 20,000 unopened vote-by-mail ballots to count, plus many more provisional, military and overseas ballots to tally.
Stanislaus expects most of those ballots to be counted by late Friday.
San Joaquin has 15,000 vote-by-mail ballots and 3,300 provisional ballots to count, but that wont happen until next week.