GOP's Cooley Beats... GOP's Whitman

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Getty/Kevork Djansezian

It may not be much of a consolation prize if the current trend in the vote count continues, but the most popular California Republican on Election Day was Steve Cooley.

The party's standard bearer, Meg Whitman, looks as though she'll come in third.

Cooley currently trails Democrat Kamala Harris by 43,556 votes. While some are saying Cooley's unlikely to retake the lead as the remaining votes are tallied, he's not going to concede the contest anytime soon.

Nonetheless, Cooley is already the definitive victor in the race for Most Popular California Republican -- a thankless prize, no doubt, but one made all the more interesting by the state GOP's woes during the 2010 election season and by the complete collapse of the Whitman campaign for governor.

Current tallies show the Los Angeles DA's vote total at 4,270,043 -- besting both GOP gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman (4,030,703) and GOP senatorial nominee Carly Fiorina (4,118,103).

While we won't have final and official results for a few weeks, it's hard not to compare those vote tallies to cash raised in support of the the candidates. Cooley's campaign currently reports having raised about $5.1 million, with another $1.47 million spent by independent groups in support of his candidacy. Whitman, as you know, blows those numbers away... amassing almost $147.6 million (mostly from herself).

(It's a little tough to match up Fiorina's campaign cash with the others, as federal campaign reporting rules offer less transparenncy; through October 13, her campaign reported almost $18 million raised, a number which will never include the almost totally invisible world of independent expenditures.)

KQED/John Myers

At current vote totals, the Cooley forces raised roughly $1.55 for every vote he received... compared to Whitman's astounding $36.63 for every vote garnered.

And he got a lot more bang for those bucks.

The GOP attorney general candidate looks to have won 39 of the state's 58 counties, compared to Whitman beating Governor-elect Jerry Brown in 35 counties. Fiorina won 37 counties in her loss to U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer. Remember, while the Dems may have lost county-by-county, the counties they won represent the lion's share of California's votes.

Focusing on Cooley and Whitman, the four counties that went Democratic for governor but Republican for attorney general: Del Norte, Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Santa Barbara.

And that doesn't tell the whole story. In many counties in which both Whitman and Cooley won on November 2, the gubernatorial nominee simply didn't win enough votes to offset her losses elsewhere. Consider San Diego County, which went Republican in both races. Cooley's margin of victory, as of now, is about 112,000 votes; but in the same county, Whitman bested Brown by only some 52,000 votes.

Secretary of State's Website

Similar stories can be gleaned out of the Republican havens of the Central Valley and Sierra foothills, where Cooley's margin of victory over Harris trumps Whitman's beating of Brown -- places like Merced, Calaveras, Tuolumne, and Amador. While these individual counties may not have proven to be the breaking point, the numbers eventually start to add up. Overall, Whitman lost by an estimated 1.2 million votes.

It'll be a long time, if ever, before we really know why Meg Whitman was less popular than Steve Cooley. One possibility might be that it was the increasingly important independent voters who split their ballots in support of both Brown and Cooley. Another may be that some of the Cooley votes were actually votes against Harris, often portrayed in the campaign as an ultra-liberal from San Francisco.

And again, this will prove memorable only to us political junkies if, once all the votes are counted, Steve Cooley ends up sitting at home watching Kamala Harris take the oath of office as attorney general on January 3.

But for the Whitman campaign, it's another example of an effort that fell short on many levels... including leading the GOP ticket to victory.

Tuesday 11:35 a.m. Update: Harris now leads Cooley by almost 54,000 votes. You can keep track of the tally here.

Wednesday 12:41 p.m. Update: Cooley throws in the towel.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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