Surprise Results, and Millions Spent, in State Legislative Primaries

Johnny Khamis, Tim Gildersleeve, Dave Cortese and Nora Campos, from left to right, during a District 15 State Senate candidate forum at Campbell City Hall on Feb. 19, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The top two finishers in a trio of competitive Bay Area state Senate races may not be known for days, as a handful of candidates remain tightly bunched.

Incumbent Senator Steve Glazer (D-Orinda) will advance to the general election in the 7th district, while Santa Clara supervisor Dave Cortese has opened up a wide lead in the open 15th district in San Jose.

Harder to decipher is who Glazer and Cortese will face in the general election — and who will go toe-to-toe come November in the 13th district, covering the peninsula from Brisbane to Sunnyvale.

In that district and the adjacent 15th, the Bay Area's two open state Senate seats resulted in two of the most expensive legislative campaigns in California.

But if there's anything that can be gleaned from Wednesday morning's returns, it's that primaries packed with Democratic candidates can make it easier for less-heralded Republicans to advance to the general election.

Surprise on the Peninsula

Wednesday morning returns in the 13th district show Republican Alexander Glew, a Los Altos engineer, leading the field by a slim margin of less than 1%. Glew spent just over $1,000 on his campaign in the last filing period, according to pre-primary filings made with the Secretary of State in mid-February.


That's compared to the more than $5 million spent by the leading Democrats and a handful of independent expenditure committees, making the race the most expensive legislative contest in California.

Election 2020

Glew is currently trailed by entrepreneur Josh Becker, former state Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, Redwood City Vice Mayor Shelly Masur, Millbrae Councilwoman Annie Oliva, and Burlingame Councilman Mike Brownrigg.

In a race with a number of current and former elected officials, it was Becker who came out on top with the most impressive slate of endorsements, notching support from Hill, Gov. Gavin Newsom and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.

Housing emerged as a leading issue in the crowded primary. Masur voiced the most support of any candidate for Senate Bill 50, the controversial (and defeated) state bill to reform local zoning laws by requiring more dense construction near transit and job hubs. Oliva put the issue of homelessness front and center in her candidacy, motivated by the fact that her son was previously homeless. Brownrigg, a former U.S. diplomat, touted his record of bringing housing to underused parcels in Burlingame.

Johnny Khamis speaks during a 15th District State Senate forum at Campbell City Hall on Feb. 19, 2020.
Johnny Khamis speaks during a 15th District State Senate forum at Campbell City Hall on Feb. 19, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

South Bay Millions

Further south, state Senate District 15 voters in San Jose, Campbell and Cupertino were also confronted with a crowded field of candidates who spent more than $2 million ahead of the primary, and benefited from more than $2.2 million in super PAC spending.

After Cortese, former Federal Elections Commissions chair Ann Ravel held a slight lead Wednesday over former state Assemblywoman Nora Campos, a fellow Democrat.

Cortese and Campos split support along familiar lines in recent legislative primaries, with Cortese garnering support from organized labor and Campos receiving outside super PAC help from oil and gas companies.

Ravel bemoaned the influence of outside spending in the race. Her strategy centered on driving turnout in the western side of the district — home to more suburban, affluent communities like San Jose's Willow Glen neighborhood and towns including Campbell and Los Gatos. In early returns, she showed that it paid off, winning or finishing second to Cortese in nearly all of the district's western precincts.

Currently, all of the Bay Area's state senators and assemblymembers are Democrats. On paper, San Jose city councilman Johnny Khamis' campaign represented the best chance to break that stronghold in 2020. He ran as an independent candidate after breaking from the Republican party in 2018 over the GOP's rightward tilt on immigration nationally.

But his strategy of appealing directly to independent voters (in a Senate district with the second-highest percentage of independents in the state) seems to have fallen flat. Khamis currently sits in fifth, behind unfunded Republican Robert P. Howell.

Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, takes the oath of office from Gov. Jerry Brown on May 28, 2015.
Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, takes the oath of office from Gov. Jerry Brown on May 28, 2015. (Lorie Shelley/California Senate Photograph)

Challenging the East Bay Incumbent

The most serious challenge to an incumbent in the Bay Area was in the 7th state Senate District, in Contra Costa and Alameda counties.

There, moderate Democrat Glazer cruised to the general election, winning nearly half the vote against progressive activist Marisol Rubio and Republican Julie Mobley.

Glazer has raised the ire of organized labor since his first campaign for the seat, when he promised to oppose strikes by BART workers. At the state Democratic convention, party activists declined to endorse Glazer.

But in the Bay Area's last remaining purple region, Rubio was unable to come within striking distance of the incumbent. On Wednesday morning, Rubio trailed the Republican Mobley, who ran a shoestring campaign, by nearly 10 points.