10:09 AM PDT on Sunday, October 31, 2010
By JIM MILLER and DUANE W. GANG
SACRAMENTO – In 2006, the last time candidates for governor and U.S. senator shared a ballot, large majorities of voters in Riverside and San Bernardino counties helped re-elect Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democrat Dianne Feinstein.
Leading into Tuesday’s election, the economically battered two-county region is a big piece of the campaigns by Republicans Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina to win hard-fought contests for governor and Senate.
Democrats Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer have won here before, however. And in 2008, Inland voters favored Democrat Barack Obama.
The region’s 1.6 million voters have been on the receiving end of countless TV ads, mailers and the occasional visit during this year’s campaigns. But it remains unclear exactly what kind of Inland electorate will show up Tuesday, and whether its numbers, which traditionally trail state turnout, will make a difference in either contest.
Whitman, who is running against Brown for governor, and Fiorina, who is trying to unseat Boxer, have stumped repeatedly in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Polls show both Republicans leading among Southern California voters outside of Los Angeles.
“I am going to fight for votes in every part of California,” Whitman said last week in Riverside, saying it was her 20th visit to Riverside County. “I am going to fight in the north, in the Central Valley and down here in San Bernardino and Riverside.”
Brown, who was governor from 1975 to 1983, carried the Inland region when he last ran for governor in 1978. Boxer, who lives in Rancho Mirage, has always lost in Riverside County but has won narrowly in San Bernardino County.
Both have spent less time in the region than Whitman and Fiorina. But they haven’t written it off — Brown is scheduled to be in Riverside this afternoon to encourage people to vote.
Phil Gaskin, the Southern California field director of Organizing for America, said Democrats also are paying attention to the region. The organization is part of the Democratic National Committee and an offshoot of Barack Obama’s successful 2008 campaign.
The group is focusing efforts on defeating Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs, and Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona. Increasing Democratic turnout in the contests will likely aid Brown and Boxer in the governor and Senate races.
“We wanted to have a presence in key congressional districts,” Gaskin said.
For all the attention, Inland voters defy easy characterization. For decades, Democrats dominated the registration rolls, but voters often preferred Republicans for statewide office.
The region’s politics continue to lean Republican. Democrats have made inroads, though. Obama carried both counties. A Democratic presidential candidate has done that only four times since the 1930s.
Also, Latinos, who have backed Democrats by large margins, are projected to be the region’s dominant ethnic group by 2015.
UC Riverside professor Karthick Ramakrishnan, who has studied the region’s makeup, said he expects Republican candidates to improve significantly from 2008. But he said the numbers won’t reach the GOP’s Inland success during the early part of the past decade, such as when President George W. Bush carried Riverside County by nearly 17 points in 2004.
“In the short term, Republicans still hold an advantage,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if in 2012 Democrats gain the upper hand again.”
Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries led the Riverside County GOP during part of the past decade. He oversaw the county party as Schwarzenegger, Bush and Republican candidates won large victories.
Jeffries said Obama’s surprising victory in the region reflected a level of voter excitement that “has worn off and will go down in the history books.”
“I really believe that you’re going to see Riverside County go back to its more recent traditions of supporting moderate to conservative views on the size of government,” Jeffries said.
Republican candidates besides Whitman and Fiorina also are courting Inland voters. Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado campaigned in San Bernardino several days ago.
“This is a battleground county for me,” Maldonado said after a news conference with San Bernardino County District Attorney Mike Ramos and Sens. Bob Dutton, R-Rancho Cucamonga, and Bill Emmerson, R-Hemet.
In recent months, Republicans have spent at least $450,000 to sign up new voters in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. GOP registration has increased by about 1 percent in San Bernardino County and less than that in Riverside County from a year ago.
Maldonado and others praised those efforts. But getting Inland voters to actually vote is the key to offsetting Democrats’ large advantages in Los Angeles County and in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Both parties confront a history of Inland voter participation that has lagged behind other parts of the state, particularly in midterm elections such as Tuesday’s.
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