Coming into the 2020 election cycle, area Democrats coveted flipping Supervisory District 3 of the Sacramento County Board. Republican incumbent Susan Peters was retiring, and winning her open seat would give Democrats a decisive advantage on the five-person board that oversees a $6.4 billion budget.
The race would also offer a nice warmup for 2022 when the countywide district attorney and sheriff’s offices – both held by Republicans – are on the ballot. With Democrats holding a solid 40%-30%-30% voter registration advantage in District 3 over Republicans and independents, the odds seemed good for Democrats to win Peter’s seat.
But seven months before this year’s March primary, the Democratic Party of Sacramento County (DPSC) thought it could increase those odds by endorsing a single candidate from a diverse five-person Democratic field. This candidate was SMUD Board member and former radio announcer Gregg Fishman. The Sacramento Central Labor Council soon followed suit as well.
Alas, things didn’t follow as planned. After Fishman jumped to a 4½-point lead on election night, county Democrats cringed as this lead evaporated with each subsequent released vote count, and Fishman conceded Friday night. (See vote-count tic-toc at end of story.) This has left a lot of “what if” questioning among Democrats.
“With the Democrats’ big registration advantage, this should have been a slam-dunk, 10-point win for Fishman,” said Austin Schlocker, president of the Arden Community Council and moderator of one online debate. “It has been 16 years since we’ve had a real choice [in District 3]. With this loss, who knows how many future elections in District 3 will be lost for Democrats.”
District 3 mostly encompasses unincorporated areas of Sacramento County. This includes Arden-Arcade, Carmichael, Fair Oaks, Foothill Farms, College Glen, North Highlands, as well as a small part of eastern Sacramento from the American River to Alhambra Boulevard.
Echoing many Democrats, Gina McBride, president of the JFK Democratic Club of Sacramento County, said the limits imposed by the pandemic had a big effect on Fishman’s campaign. Not being able to have large gatherings and canvass door-to-door made reaching voters extra challenging.
“Those activities are far more important for Democrats than for Republicans. I really feel for Gregg,” she said.
Kendra Lewis, past president of the Elk Grove-South County Democratic Club and vice chair of the DPSC Central Committee, concurred: “Before COVID hit, Gregg worked real hard knocking on doors and getting out there. But with the restrictions, this made him more reliant on things like mailers, which really limits you.”
EARLY ENDORSEMENT GROWLING
Some District 3 Democrats said the partial seeds of defeat may have been sown when the DPSC chose to endorse Fishman seven months before the March primary. They said this short-circuited a fair and healthy primary competition and did not let Fishman prove his strength as a candidate.
At the DPSC’s last monthly membership meeting before it finalized its Fishman endorsement, a couple Democratic clubs located within District 3 voiced their opposition. They said their opposition wasn’t to Fishman. Instead, they opposed how such an early endorsement undercut their clubs’ desire to formally interview all candidates and make their own endorsements before party Democrats outside District 3 put such a heavy thumb on the scale.
“I don’t think the local Democratic Party has a true commitment to the residents of unincorporated Sacramento County,” Schlocker said. “Being unincorporated, we don’t have a vote in any mayoral or city council races. It’s just this one county supervisor seat. By endorsing early, they basically disenfranchised our district. That’s not a winning playbook.”
They may have had a point as the March primary featured a warning sign. Despite overwhelming endorsements, Fishman won less than half of the primary votes cast for Democratic candidates. It was hardly the show of strength the DPSC hoped, but Fishman’s 25% overall share was enough to finish top two and move onto the general election to face conservative Rich Desmond (42%).
Shaun Dillon – the Democrats’ endorsed District 3 candidate in 2016 – said he felt the DPSC’s early endorsement also showed a tin ear for the county’s most pressing issues. (Dillon was also a candidate in 2020, but withdrew early to clear the crowded field.)
“What concerns me is we had a very diverse and experienced field of candidates for this seat. Before the pandemic and George Floyd’s murder, the two biggest issues in Sacramento County were homelessness and economic development. We had one candidate [Tiffany Mock-Goeman] who had worked on the homeless issue for two decades and another [Catrayel Wood] who is African American with an advanced degree in economics from Oxford,” Dillon said.
“And who did the party endorse? The candidate with no expertise in either area. Gregg seems a likable guy, but [the early DPSC endorsement] was a complete power play by the party that may have really backfired on them,” he said.
In many ways, these critiques mirror complaints nationally about Democratic Party leadership. A generational difference can be seen among candidates and voters under 45 who see the older leaders as too cautious to strongly define the party on social and economic issues important to most Democratic and independent voters. They feel this results in too many middle-of-the road partisan candidates without enough authenticity and passion to appeal to younger and independent voters.
Said Politico’s John Harris in an article last week: “The crossfire between the Democratic Party’s left and moderate wings... has obscured a striking point of commonality. Both sides have similar descriptions of Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill — arrogant, bereft of creativity, generationally obsolete.”
WHAT HAPPENED, STATISTICALLY
No exit polling is available in the race so knowing exactly what happened is not possible. However, a comparative study of 2016 and 2020 election results does provide some possible explanations.
First, the results show Fishman attracted far fewer District 3 votes than either Joe Biden in the presidential race or the combination of Democratic Congressional incumbents Ami Bera and Doris Matsui. (About two-thirds of District 3 falls in Bera’s Congressional district; the rest in Matsui’s.)
Two factors account for this gap. First in Sacramento County, the 2020 general-election turnout looks to have gone from an impressive 74.5% in 2016 to probably more than 80% when the last votes are counted. This big turnout leap, however, didn’t largely go to Biden as many expected. If it had, he would have improved on Hillary’s 2016 winning margin in the county by more than just 1 point.
But whatever ballot splitting that helped Biden could not, by definition, benefit Fishman – especially as Desmond ran independent of Trump. Plus, Desmond benefited from that extra Trump turnout as well, further eating into the Democrats’ voter registration advantage.
The second big factor that must have went against Fishman was the No Party Preference/Independent vote. This measured 30% in District 3. In Sacramento County, this category generally leans anywhere from slightly to significantly for Democrats, but Fishman clearly lost a majority of this vote to erase all remaining vote registration advantage and then some.
Why Fishman lost the independent vote is a far more complicated issue and would require close analysis of both campaigns’ tactics plus exit polling. But it would seem COVID’s impact on door-to-door efforts can’t account for all of it. Some Democrats point to messaging mistakes, saying Fishman may have wrapped himself too much in the Biden-Harris ticket for a local race and any attacks that came off as typically partisan may have lessened his appeal to independents exhausted by national partisanship.
Whatever the case, these aren’t academic questions heading into the 2022 races for Sheriff and District Attorney. Countywide, Democrats’ voter registration share is five points higher (45%) than in District 3; however, trying to oust incumbents like Republican District Attorney Ann Marie Schubert and Sheriff Scott Jones is far harder than winning an open Supervisor seat.
This means competing for at least some of the 29% of Sacramento County voters who are registered No Party Preference/Independent will be essential to winning either seat. This also means finding the right candidates who energize Democrats in the primary, and whose character and principles can appeal to independents in the general.
“Down ballot races are even more important because they really have an impact on our lives,” McBride said. “I believe the DPSC is going to be targeting those two seats real hard. We’ve done that before, but Anne Marie Schubert still won last time. We have to figure it out.”
Lewis said she believes the Democratic Party needs to get better at more creatively engaging voters on an ongoing basis.
“We must continue to register more voters. We can’t forget that part. This region is transforming. There are a lot of independents and new progressives to the area,” Lewis said. “But you can’t expect the whole big tent to show up if they aren’t kept engaged.”
She said the pandemic has made many residents more familiar with different technology, and she wants the Democratic Party to build on that. But she cautioned against simply having more one- and two-hour meetings online. Most people are too busy for that, she said.
Instead, she feels they must develop new ongoing engagement tools that require no more than 15-20 minutes of time once or twice a month. But what those engagement tools are will require more study, Lewis said.
So stay tuned – 2022 will be intense.
CHART NOTE: According to the Sacramento Board of Elections, the 8:15 p.m. vote count on election night included only early mail-in and early in-person ballots. The other three election-night vote counts were of remaining in-person vote. All subsequent numbers counted remaining drop-box and mail-in ballots, plus conditional ballots.