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Why did CA Democratic Assemblyman Ken Cooley lose his election?

Democratic Assemblyman Ken Cooley was unseated by Republican Josh Hoover.

Democratic Assemblyman Ken Cooley was unseated by Republican Josh Hoover.

Assemblymember Ken Cooley Facebook page

Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, called his Republican challenger, Josh Hoover, on Tuesday to concede the race for Assembly District 7. But the question remains: How did an incumbent Democrat with a massive spending advantage lose his seat in liberal California?

The race was close. While ballots were still being counted Wednesday afternoon, Hoover held a wafer-thin 1% edge over Cooley, 82,226 to 80,749.

The spending, however, was nowhere near close. Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 22, Cooley’s campaign dropped $3.4 million, averaging out to about $42 per vote. Hoover’s campaign spent a little more than $940,000 in that same period, amounting to roughly $11 per vote.

What happened, from the Cooley perspective

“Redistricting happened. That district became much more conservative,” said Susan McEntire of the Assembly Democrats, which worked to get Democrats elected. “It is a much more purple district than it was for Ken Cooley’s last 10 years.”

Andrew Acosta, a Democratic strategist who worked with the Cooley campaign, acknowledged that redistricting didn’t do his candidate any favors.

“Ken’s (voter) registration advantage was pretty small,” Acosta said.

Cooley also faced stiff headwinds in the form of voter enthusiasm, or rather the lack of it, primarily because there was no competitive gubernatorial or senate race at the top of the ticket, Acosta added.

He disputed the idea that voters stayed home because they weren’t excited by Cooley.

“Turnout is based on the top of the ticket, not an Assembly race,” he said.

Acosta said that Cooley did everything he could despite those challenges, and the added obstacle of Sacramento’s pricey media market. The candidate and his campaign workers went door-to-door seeking votes. It just wasn’t enough, he said.

“He ran a tough race this time and it just didn’t work out,” Acosta said.

What happened, from the Hoover perspective

Andre Levesque, who advised the Hoover campaign, pointed out that while Cooley was an incumbent, he wasn’t technically the incumbent for the newly drawn AD-7.

“Did he have incumbency advantages? Yeah. … But at the end of the day, I think the electorate is dissatisfied with the direction California is heading,” Levesque said.

Specifically, Hoover was able to campaign against Cooley’s vote for the gas tax, and his refusal to support a gas tax holiday.

“Californians are really struggling with the high cost of living right now, so they’re looking for a change of direction,” Levesque said.

He added that Hoover, a former chief of staff for Assemblyman Kevin Kiley who sat on the board of the Folsom Cordova Unified School District, ran “a very grassroots campaign.” In the end, Cooley’s incumbency and spending advantages mattered less than Hoover’s image as someone with policy chops willing to go against the Democratic supermajority in the Assembly.

“Somebody that’s a local candidate versus part of the establishment,” Levesque said. “He understands the problems that people are facing in the district.”

What happened, from the outside perspective

Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist unaffiliated with the Hoover campaign, agreed with Levesque that the gas tax was a critical issue with voters, not just in AD-7, but in other closely contested races — including Democratic Assemblyman Rudy Salas’ failed attempt to unseat GOP Rep. David Valadao and Democratic Assemblyman Adam Gray’s race against Republican John Duarte, still yet to be called but with Duarte in the lead.

“All three (Cooley, Salas, Gray) got hammered on their gas tax vote,” Stutzman said.

He added that the lack of enthusiasm hurt Democratic candidates across the state, including Cooley.

“Just by percentage and raw vote, it appears to be rather lackluster,” Stutzman said, adding that neither Gov. Gavin Newsom nor Proposition 1, the measure to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution, appeared to be big turnout boosters.

“And sports betting wasn’t going to drive people to the polls,” he added.

Lower turnout is a problem for Democrats, Stutzman said, because it typically means that younger voters, a reliable Democratic bloc, stayed home.

Amar Shergill, who chairs the California Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus, agreed that Cooley had a turnout problem. But he disputed the idea that it was because Cooley was a Democrat.

He pointed to Democrat Pilar Schiavo, who unseated Santa Clarita Republican Assemblywoman Suzette Valladares.

Shergill said that while Cooley chased Republican votes, shrinking his pool of volunteers, Schiavo ran on progressive values and was able to attract more energy to her campaign.

“Pilar Schiavo made her choice and won. Ken Cooley made his choice and lost,” Shergill said.

The progressive Democrat disputed the idea that Cooley had to play to a more conservative voter base, saying that Cooley is “an excellent example of why that is a bad path.”

“He was forced to rely on corporate dollars and Democratic Party funding instead of the folks in his community. And that just didn’t work out well for him,” he said.

Shergill said that there wasn’t one thing that contributed to Cooley’s defeat. Rather, he said, it was a pattern of voting behavior that turned off progressive voters. He listed Cooley’s opposition to a universal health care bill and a failure to lead on housing bills as examples.

NARAL Pro-Choice California also awarded Cooley a “F” on their 2022 legislative scorecard, calling him “extremely hostile to reproductive freedom..”

Shergill called it death by 1,000 cuts.

“When you accumulate that many cuts, it ends in the death of an incumbency campaign like his,” he said.

This story was originally published December 1, 2022 6:00 AM.

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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for The Sacramento Bee. He has covered crime and politics from interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.