New Field Poll: Democrats Dominate, Schools Chief Showdown

This may be the first statewide election in California where the real suspense on Election Night is not for a marquee race, but for a job that's nonpartisan by definition and limited in its power.

Yes, it's the year of the schools chief showdown.

Today's new Field Poll shows an exact tie in the race for superintendent of public instruction, with incumbent Tom Torlakson and challenger Marshall Tuck both at 28 percent support. That leaves a whopping 44 percent of the likely electorate undecided with just days left to get off the fence.

Meantime, the new survey reaffirms that Gov. Jerry Brown appears headed to an easy victory over GOP challenger Neel Kashkari, with Brown now favored 54 percent to 33 percent.

And in the other six races for statewide offices, Democrats are in a position to again sweep all the races -- although a couple of GOP contenders in these down-ticket contests are poised to at least make it interesting, if not actually break the eight-year Republican losing streak.

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Back to the schools chief race, in which the two contenders' camps both are claiming some momentum in this poll. Tuck, the former Los Angeles charter school official, appears to have lost a slight lead over the incumbent in a Field Poll two months ago -- a point highlighted by the superintendent's team.

"It's clear that some voters are having second thoughts about putting a former Wall Street banker with no teaching experience in charge of California's election system," said Paul Hefner, Torlakson's campaign manager.

But on the other hand, Torlakson is a veteran Democratic elected official and hasn't convinced a majority of voters that he deserves another four years running the state Department of Education. And Team Tuck is all too happy to highlight that fact.

"The significant number of undecideds," said Tuck spokesperson Cynara Lilly, "prove the point that the voters are frustrated with the state of California schools."

The Torlakson-Tuck fight has easily set the fundraising record for a state superintendent's race. While the candidates have spent almost a combined $4.3 million, it's the independent expenditure groups that have really dumped cash into the contest. Those groups alone have dumped more than $17 million into the race, with most of that total in support of Tuck. The single largest outside contributor has been the politically powerful California Teachers Association, with more than $4.3 million in support of its longtime ally Torlakson. The biggest single benefactor for Tuck is Manhattan Beach real estate executive William Bloomfield Jr., who's chipped in $2.25 million.

The race has undoubtedly become supercharged in the wake of the ruling in Vergara vs. California, where a Los Angeles judge wrote that the state's teacher tenure laws have a "real and appreciable impact" on educational opportunities for low-income students. The ruling has been appealed, and the two men stand at opposite ends of the Vergara battlefield -- Torlakson as a critic of the ruling, Tuck as a supporter of changes to the tenure system.

And like most close elections, it's the makeup of the electorate that may prove the difference. The Field Poll finds Torlakson ahead with liberal, white voters and in a particularly strong position in his home turf of the Bay Area. Tuck (who is also a Democrat, for what it's worth) leads among Republicans, Latinos and Los Angeles voters.

The other races measured by the new poll:

Governor: Brown continues to dominate this race, and is handily beating Kashkari in pretty much every voter subgroup -- a consistent theme in this race now for months. In fact, Kashkari has already started talking about his first task after the election: to find a job.

Lt. Governor: Incumbent Gavin Newsom holds a 10-point lead over GOP challenger Ron Nehring, 47 percent to 37 percent.

Attorney General: Incumbent Kamala Harris holds a 13-point lead over GOP challenger Ron Gold, 49 percent to 36 percent. Harris, by the way, had a spirited half-hour discussion Wednesday about her race on KQED's Forum.

Controller: In one of the races closely watched for a possible Republican breakthrough, Democrat Betty Yee still leads GOP challenger Ashley Swearengin since late August, but Swearengin has narrowed the gap to 8 points, 44 percent to 36 percent. One in five likely voters in this new poll remain undecided.

Secretary of State: In the other intriguing race, Democrat Alex Padilla holds a 7-point advantage over Republican Pete Peterson, 44 percent to 37 percent. Peterson has won a number of newspaper endorsements, but the veteran legislator Padilla has a strong fundraising edge.

Treasurer: Democrat John Chiang, attempting to move from state controller to California's top banker, leads Republican Greg Conlon by 11 points -- though Chiang had a huge 26-point lead two months ago. This race has been, frankly, a yawner.

Insurance Commissioner: Incumbent Democrat Dave Jones is leading GOP challenger Ted Gaines by 12 points, though there are more undecided voters -- 22 percent -- than in any race other than schools chief.

It should be noted that the Field Poll assumes the Nov. 4 electorate will be noticeably more Republican than the party's official statewide registration (by about 6 points). That may make some of these races other than governor not quite as predictable as they now seem -- especially seeing as only 28 percent of Field's likely voters consider themselves to be liberal.

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UPDATE: This post was tweaked Thursday morning to reflect a more accurate total of independent expenditures from the major players, which turned out to be higher than our first stab at the math, and to reflect that most of that money is in support of Marshall Tuck.

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