Democrat Debra Bowen, greeting supporters with her husband, Mark Nechodom, at her election night party in Old Torrance on Tuesday night, says she expects
Democrat Debra Bowen, greeting supporters with her husband, Mark Nechodom, at her election night party in Old Torrance on Tuesday night, says she expects to claim a spot in July's runoff once all the votes are finalized. (Scott Varley, Staff Photographer)
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Pundits expected the 36th Congressional District special primary to be about which Democrat would succeed Rep. Jane Harman, not if a Democrat would replace her.

But one day after Republican Craig Huey stunned political observers from the South Bay to Washington by qualifying for a July 12 runoff, that scenario is looming.

Huey, a businessman who spent $500,000 of his own money on his campaign, bested Democratic Secretary of State Debra Bowen on election night, 21.9 percent to 21.5 percent, a difference of 206 votes.

With 9,811 ballots yet to be counted, the outcome is not fixed, but Huey is now set to face Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn in the next round. Hahn, a Democrat, finished first by taking 24.7 percent of the vote.

Huey was defiant on Wednesday.

"This is a direct result of a reckless economic policy," Huey said.

"Listen, there is so much unrest among voters - not just Republicans, but decline-to-states and Democrats," he continued. "The arrogance of politicians is that they don't recognize it."

Because no candidate won a majority Tuesday, Hahn and Huey would compete in the runoff because of new "jungle primary" rules that pit the top two finishers against each other, regardless of party.

Far from giving up, Bowen intends to be in the runoff herself.

"There are almost 10,000 ballots left. I'm expecting to be very busy until July 12," Bowen said.


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Bowen pointed out that California Attorney General Kamala Harris trailed Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley after election night in November, but Harris prevailed after all ballots were counted.

"This is just what happens in an election in the last few years as more and more people vote by mail," she said.

"I wish it weren't me, but this is what happens."

The Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk's Office was busy Wednesday manually sifting through the remaining ballots.

Of those, 8,416 were vote-by-mail. The signatures on the ballots will be verified before counting, spokeswoman Marcia Ventura said.

Provisional ballots, numbering 1,269, will first be checked to ensure the voters are registered and eligible to cast a ballot. The 126 damaged ballots will also be verified, then remade for tabulation.

Election officials expect to start tallying the ballots beginning at 1 p.m. Thursday.

Certification to the secretary of state is tentatively scheduled for Friday, officials said.

Though pundits were shocked by the initial election result, Harman, who resigned in February to lead a Washington think tank, was a conservative Democrat. In fact, she once famously described herself as "the best Republican in the Democratic Party."

Democrats hold an 18 percent voter registration advantage in the Venice-to-San Pedro district Harman represented for more than 15 years, but what's little known outside of California is that 24 percent of 36th District's electors are decline-to-state voters.

And the geographic backbone of the district, the beach cities and Torrance, does not shy from voting for Republicans in significant numbers.

Hal Dash, president of the political consulting firm Cerrell Associates, guessed that Huey's expertise with direct mail campaigns at his Torrance advertising firm allowed him to narrowly target likely voters with a flood of campaign literature.

Adding to that, Dash said, "In a lower turnout election, lower visibility special election, a lot of time Republicans get out their votes and Huey may have appealed to moderate, conservative Democrats as well."

Turnout on Tuesday was 15.4 percent.

The primary campaign took a negative turn in the final weekend, as Hahn accused Bowen of taking "big oil" money.

Bowen, a darling of environmental groups, responded by hitting Hahn for her ties to lobbyists and developers who have contributed to her campaign.

Some observers thought it was clear that Hahn's strategy throughout the race was to drive voters away from Bowen and into the fold of Democrat Marcy Winograd, the anti-war activist who twice challenged Harman. Winograd took 9.5 percent of the vote Tuesday.

Hahn confirmed Wednesday that her preferred opponent is Huey.

"I would rather run against him than Debra Bowen," said the three-term Los Angeles city councilwoman. "I think the choice for voters is more clear."

At the same time, she said, "It's certainly daunting to face someone who is independently wealthy and willing to put a significant amount of their own money into the race."

Perhaps as a sign of things to come in a potential Hahn-Huey matchup, Huey's campaign was already swinging 10 hours after results were posted.

"The fact that 75 percent of voters chose to vote for someone other than Janice Hahn is telling, considering her family's high profile and long association with L.A. city politics and the huge lead in name ID she had just a few weeks ago," Huey's veteran campaign consultant, Dave Gilliard, said in a statement.

"This sets up a classic race between a career politician and a successful small business owner."

eric.bradley@dailybreeze.com