What to look for as Stanislaus County residents prepare to go to the polls

Kathy Styles feeds ballots into the tabulation machine at the Stanislaus County Clerk Recorders office in Modesto, Calif., Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018.
Kathy Styles feeds ballots into the tabulation machine at the Stanislaus County Clerk Recorders office in Modesto, Calif., Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018. aalfaro@modbee.com

Maybe Tuesday’s election has you giddy with anticipation. Or maybe you can hardly wait for an end to all the political ads and mailers.

Either way, the day of reckoning is nearly at hand.

Soon we’ll know whether Jeff Denham will keep his seat in Congress, or lose it to Josh Harder. The outcome may affect whether Republicans retain control of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., or lose the majority to Democrats.

Locally, many throughout Stanislaus County are intrigued to see whether prosecutor John Mayne can oust his boss, Birgit Fladager.

Turlock voters might hold onto their mayor, Gary Soiseth, or welcome back former Mayor Brad Bates, or promote longtime Councilwoman Amy Bublak.

People in northwest Modesto, Salida and Wood Colony could retain Terry Withrow as their county supervisor, or opt for a change with Tony Madrigal, who would leave the Modesto City Council if he wins.

Other voters through the heart of Modesto are saying goodbye to longtime county Supervisor Dick Monteith, and will choose between Frank Damrell and Tom Berryhill to succeed him.

Also leaving his post: 12-year county superintendent of schools Tom Changnon, whose successor will be either his assistant, Scott Kuykendall, or Shannon Sanford, superintendent of the Gratton School District.

Local measures include two bonds for Modesto City Schools; moving school board and city council elections in Modesto to even years; and regulating cannabis sales in Ceres, Patterson, Riverbank and Oakdale.

Indicators suggest unusual interest, for a midterm election.

Since the last midterms in 2014, Stanislaus County’s population has grown about 4.9 percent (to 555,624), according to the California Department of Finance. But voter registration here has jumped 16 percent in the same time frame, probably because people are paying more attention to politics and government.

Maybe more telling is the number of absentee ballots already returned to the county elections office. Shortly before the midterms two years ago, 26,493 people had voted by mail; this year, as of Thursday, that number had ballooned 118 percent, to 57,836, a stunning increase.

High turnout historically favors Democratic candidates. GOP faithful typically vote rain or shine, whereas Democrats show up more when they’re really excited or mad, whether at the president or lawmakers making decisions on immigration, health care, water, Supreme Court composition or something else.

Will heightened interest help Harder, a Democrat, as he seeks the District 10 seat held by the GOP’s Denham since 2010? Their neck-and-neck (according to polls) race is among the most-watched across the United States, and has produced a seeming endless stream of commercials for many weeks.

The Modesto Bee’s unofficial count of mailers in the Denham-Harder race stood at 57 combined as of Thursday — with negative hit-pieces outnumbering positive messages by more than 3-to-1.

Both have raised more campaign money than most others in 28 House contests elsewhere, all deemed toss-ups for seats currently held by Republicans, according to OpenSecrets.org; Denham had received $4.5 million as of Oct. 17, compared to the $3 million average for other House Republicans in close races, while Harder had gathered $7 million, compared to the $5.5 million average for Democratic candidates in such races. And both parties and special interest groups are pouring millions more into the fight, on both sides.

Relentless negative ads portray Denham, 51, as uncaring about pre-exiting medical conditions and more interested in enriching his cronies. Others cast Harder, 32, as a liberal aligned with Nancy Pelosi and the Bay Area.

In the battle for DA, Fladager says Mayne’s lack of managerial experience can’t touch her 12 years at the helm. He wants to slow a reported exodus of prosecutors seeking a more stable office environment, and to bring more efficiency to an agency that’s notorious for a high backlog of untried murder cases.

Fladager was first elected in 2006, two years after leading the high-profile prosecution of Scott Peterson, who was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son. Mayne has worked in the office 17 years and has been endorsed by both also-rans in the June Primary: Patrick Kolasinski and Steven O’Connor. In June, Fladager captured 48 percent of the vote to Mayne’s 23 percent.

In Turlock, Soiseth — completing his first four-year term — has a slogan of “clear vision, bold leadership.” But he has been criticized for leading a council that has allowed reserves to dwindle. Detractors say his overbearing leadership style has cost Turlock two city managers, a police chief, a fire chief, a city attorney and a city engineer. Soiseth also took heat for his role in the farmers market debacle that saw a for-profit market, headed by a relative of the mayor’s most generous campaign money donor, displace a beloved nonprofit market.

Bublak, a former Soiseth ally with 10 years on the council, and Bates, who was mayor from 1982 to 1990, both are mounting stiff challenges. Jaime Franco also is running. Turlock voters additionally will choose two council members.

Because Monteith is stepping aside, the county’s top elective office will see at least one new face. In District 4, Damrell has been working on the staff of state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, while Berryhill, a state senator the past eight years, is terming out; he broke a hip in July and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in August.

Madrigal was re-elected to the Modesto Council last year. Withrow, known for efforts to address homelessness, groundwater concerns and opposition to the state water grab, is seeking his third four-year term in District 3.

Other contests that have generated far less attention include Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, defending his District 21 seat against Libertarian Justin Quigley; Democrat Anna Caballero and Republican Rob Poythress seeking to succeed state Sen. Anthony Cannella, D-Ceres, who is terming out; and first-term Assemblyman Heath Flora, R-Ripon, against Democrat Robert Chase in District 12.

On Tuesday, people not voting by mail can visit polling places from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Ballots of those voting by mail will be counted as long as ballot envelopes are postmarked no later than Tuesday and if they arrive by Friday, or people can drop off mail ballots at any polling place from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday.

People registered to vote by mail who didn’t receive a ballot can visit a polling place on Tuesday and cast a provisional ballot in person. An easy way to find the nearest polling place: mypollingplace.org.

People who haven’t registered to vote can still sign up Monday or Tuesday at the county elections office, 1021 I St. in downtown Modesto.

Many results will be posted late Tuesday at modbee.com. Tight races can take several days to several weeks to sort out.

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390

Stanislaus CountyPopulationBallots mailed in early
November 2014529,85026,493
November 2018555,624 (4.9% increase)57,836 (118% increase)
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