Can a Republican get elected state controller this year?

By Garry South

May 23, 2022

Capitol Weekly

California’s long-suffering Republicans, now down to less than 24 percent of registered voters, haven’t prevailed in a statewide election since 2006. But like those kids in the well-known Christmas tale, every election cycle they have visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads.

This year, the top GOP fantasy appears to be capturing the office of state controller. Their candidate is Lanhee Chen, endorsed by the party at their state convention last month.

Chen is obviously bright — four degrees, including a Ph.D., from Harvard — and was a top policy advisor to former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

He’s even been endorsed by the Los Angeles Times, the state’s largest newspaper, calling Chen “a sharp thinker with experience analyzing large financial systems.” Oh, and also because “the controller should be as independent from the party in power as possible.” In other words, he’s not a Democrat.

History is not necessarily determinative in politics but let me recount a bit of it that should be sobering to the GOP — as well as to political reporters hungry for a competitive statewide race this year. The last time Republicans elected a controller was in, um, 1970, in the Reagan sweep that year. And that was a sitting controller running for re-election.

Since then, voters have elected six different Democrats in a row as controller, including the first woman to hold the post and two successive Asian Americans, John Chiang and current term-limited incumbent Betty Yee. What does this tell us? For one thing, voters apparently haven’t been pining for someone from the self-dubbed party of “fiscal responsibility” to serve as what many call the state’s “top fiscal watchdog.”

It’s also instructive to look back eight years to the last time the GOP had high hopes of capturing the controller’s office. In 2014, their candidate in the November runoff was then-Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin. She was also well-educated, sporting an MBA, and seemingly qualified. And unlike Chen, she already had been elected to public office, twice, as mayor of a big city.

In addition, Swearengin had finished first in the top-two primary that year, while the Democratic candidate in the fall election, Betty Yee, had barely survived a rancorous battle in the primary with a fellow Democrat, former Assembly speaker John Perez. But again, no cigar for the GOP: Yee handily dispatched Swearengin in the runoff, 54-46.

In the two-way runoffs that follow the primary elections, the winning candidate must receive an absolute majority of the vote. Not even write-ins are counted.

In the last seven contests for controller, no Republican has come close to snaring 50 percent of the vote. The high was Swearengin at 46.06, and the low was 33.14 percent in ‘98. The last hapless GOP candidate for controller, in 2018, mustered only 34.5 percent in the run-off. The other four Republicans who made the runoffs that year scored 38.1 percent, 36.4 percent, 35.9 percent, and 35.5 percent. You get the drift.

So dream on, California Republicans. Chen will almost certainly move on to the November general election, since he’s the only Republican who filed, while four solid Democrats appear on the June ballot, who will no doubt split the votes of Democrats. But if you think Chen can clear 50.1 percent of the vote in a runoff against any of the Democrats, google Swearengin, Ashley.

Or, Flournoy, Houston. Don’t remember him? He’s the last Republican to win the office, 52 years ago.