Los Angeles Election Night Winners and Losers (and How Long We’ll Wait for Final Results)

Cityside Column: The results are clear in a few races but for many, it’s now the long and winding waiting game
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The Tuesday storm that soaked Los Angeles seemed to have been unleashed by the gods of Election Day with symbolic intensity: Blast the soiled city with a cleansing rain then follow the bath with beaming sunlight and clear skies. It felt like a moment out of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia —minus the frogs tumbling from the sky.

The problem is that it’s hard to tell, at this exact moment, what kind of new day has dawned after the streets have dried and voting stations have closed. Did the rains drown the Get Out the Vote efforts that change-minded campaign teams assiduously prepared for months? Or will we see the same results we would have if it had been a typical 81 and sunny across the Southland?

It is wayyyyy too early to know who the next mayor of Los Angeles will be. But there is still already plenty to discern, so here are the key election night takeaways.

Alex Villanueva Was the Biggest Loser, Again

In the June primary, Sheriff Alex Villanueva garnered 30.7 percent of the vote. Scoring that low as an incumbent and the only one in the race with any hint of name recognition must be hard to swallow. On Tuesday, Villanueva proved that his first walk-into-a-pole performance in June was no fluke. Although hundreds of thousands of votes are still to be counted, by the end of the evening the embattled sheriff had taken just 43.2 percent of the returns. While his approximately 523,000 votes sounds nice, his challenger, former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, saw about 687,000 L.A. County residents turn his way.

Villanueva made history in 2018 by defeating Jim McDonnell; this was the first time in a century that an incumbent sheriff of L.A. County had been bounced from office. After his scorched-Earth tenure with its frequent comparisons to former President Donald Trump, Villanueva seems likely to turn that historic one-off into a two-time trend.

The Wait Will Be Long

Who is the 43rd mayor of Los Angeles? Hopefully, we’ll know by Thanksgiving, at least.

And I’m not being facetious—the final update from election night, which dropped at 3:35 a.m. on Wednesday, put mall man Rick Caruso in first place with 51.25 percent. This is about 12,000 votes ahead of U.S. Rep. Karen Bass. A total of 492,670 ballots have been tabulated.

This does not even approach the totals from the June primary, when nearly 650,000 people cast a vote for mayor. The general election tends to have a higher turnout, so L.A. could be waiting for 200,000 city ballots, or more, to be tabulated.

According to the office of the Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, about 1.32 million ballots for the entirety of Los Angeles County have been processed and counted so far, but there is zero hint of how high the voter rolls will swell. The next update is not until—gulp—Friday; the following drop takes place on Tuesday, Nov. 15. This could go on for weeks. 

Leads Fall Apart and No One Knows Anything

Any candidate currently riding in first place by single digits should refrain from the urge to buy that snazzy inauguration day power suit. That’s because, as the primary showed, election night results can, and do, flip.

Recall that on June 7, Caruso ended the evening ahead by 5 percent in the mayoral primary. But when all the votes were counted and the race was certified weeks later, Bass was up on the billionaire by 7 percent.

And this flip happened in multiple races in the spring. On primary night, District 1 City Councilman Gil Cedillo had a comfortable lead and seemed assured of a third term, but ended up falling to rival candidate Eunisses Hernandez. There was a similar result in District 13 when Incumbent Mitch O’Farrell saw an election-night advantage evaporate and Hugo Soto-Martinez marched into his runoff campaign with a 9-point win.

Overall, the late votes in June broke hard toward progressive candidates. But no one has solid intel on whether that will occur again. As for this cycle’s move to a mail-in ballot option and the shift to L.A. voting in even-numbered years, there is, again, no real evidence yet from which to pull any solid conclusions. In the days before the election, some smart folks predicted that this time, more centrist candidates might see their fortunes improve. Really, we have no idea what is to come. 

The Money Game, Part I

The homelessness crisis in L.A. may have been the most important issue for Angelenos, and therefore the mayoral candidates, but money has been a defining indicator in this electoral cycle. In the primary and runoff, Bass had about $9.2 million at her disposal. Caruso poured $107 million into the race—most of it his own money. How much is that? Well, he could have saved the campaign cash and used it to buy an identical companion yacht for Invictus, his $100 million vessel.

In one regard, perhaps the most amazing fact is that Bass is standing so strong. One could have reasoned that anyone hit by a nine-figure tsunami would be down by 20 points on Election Day. But late polls ahead of Tuesday had her just slightly ahead of Caruso.

All that money and outreach work, meanwhile, may have helped Caruso reach his literal vote ceiling. We just don’t know yet whether that is slightly above or slightly below 50 percent. 

The Money Game, Part II

For all the obvious reasons, money matters a lot in politics. But it is far from definitive and the Los Angeles election graveyard (not a real place) is full of the tombstones of very well-funded campaigns that flatlined.

To that, we can definitely add a new grave marker for City Controller hopeful Paul Koretz. The three-term District 5 City Council member raised $384,000 in the runoff, verging on four times the $102,000 pulled in by progressive newcomer Kenneth Mejia. But as we saw in the primary, Mejia thumped the City Hall veteran. Again, many votes remain to be counted, but with 60.8 percent, Mejia looks like a lock.

The Money Game, Part III

Everyone everywhere all the time talks about how much Caruso has spent this year. Almost always overlooked is the personal spending of City Attorney candidate Faisal Gill. The current tally has him at 42.2 percent of the vote, far behind rival Hydee Feldstein Soto. This race is not ready to be called just yet but one can understand if Feldstein Soto’s crew is smiling with the finish line in sight.

This is remarkable because no candidate outside of Caruso has dumped more of their own money into a city contest. Gill, a one-time Republican-turned-self-styled progressive, reported total contributions during the primary of $2.9 million. But according to disclosures filed with the City Ethics Commission, $2.35 million of that came in the form of personal loans. Gill has raised only about $628,000 from traditional donors.

Voters Don’t Like Wage Theft

There are many lessons for candidates to learn from this election cycle. One is that all should assume their dirt will come out. That proved to be a hard lesson for District 15 City Council contender Danielle Sandoval. She pushed politically connected attorney and nonprofit head Tim McOsker into a runoff—a significant achievement for an unknown. But the day after securing the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board, reporters with the paper wrote on wage theft allegations made by employees of a restaurant Sandoval once owned. Voters will forgive a lot of things but wage theft is apparently not one of them. At the close of Election Day, McOsker had nearly 65 percent of the returns. A lot of votes remain to be counted, but he is the rare candidate this year who can go ahead and get fitted for an inauguration day suit.

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