MERCED -- Voters in the 12th Senate District won't know who they elected until at least Thursday, when thousands of absentee ballots are counted. Updated Nov. 6, 4:00 pm
With all precincts in the 12th Senate District reporting, results showed Democrat Rusty Areias with 60,337 votes to 60,111 for Republican Jeff Denham.
Areias said in the wee hours Wednesday that he was up by about 500 votes and was sure to hold on to the lead. But Denham's camp said Wednesday the seat is still -- as independent observers have said all season -- a toss-up.
"It's still way too close to call," said Katherine McCloud, a Denham staffer.
Elections officials in the district haven't tallied more than 3,500 votes on absentee ballots or on provisional ballots, the paper forms issued to people who said they were registered but whose names weren't on the rolls.
Provisional voters' registration must be confirmed before their votes can be counted.
In San Benito and Merced Counties, officials said the final 3,500 ballots wouldn't be counted before Thursday. Parts of Stanislaus, Monterey and Fresno counties included in the district may account for several thousand uncounted ballots.
The victor will succeed Dick Monteith, a second-term Modesto Republican who lost a bid for the 18th Congressional District.
But while the outcome of the race is in doubt, it is clear that both Denham and Areias have pulled off a landslide victory of a different sort. Between them, the two campaigns raised five times more money than in any other district in California.
Areias pulled in $3.9 million in campaign donations, more than three-quarters of that from the state party. Denham received $2.6 million, mostly from the California GOP.
"Both sides spent all they had," Areias said early Wednesday morning. "We had all the resources we needed."
About 95 percent of all money the two parties gave to Senate campaigns went to Areias and Denham. Only the two major-party candidates for governor drew more in party money.
Both parties targeted the district early in the fall. Still, contributions continued to pour in, even late in the campaign. State records show Areias pulled in $980,000 in the final two weeks. Denham collected $785,000.
The money fueled a wave of political advertising and voter registration with little precedent in the district. In Merced County, for example, the Republican Party organized a registration drive that brought in more than 10,000 voters in two years.
Two years ago, the GOP had only 35 percent of voters in the county, compared to 50 percent for the Democrats. The 15-point gap has narrowed to 10 points by some estimates. Since registered Republicans tend to vote in greater numbers than Democrats, the effect of the gap is much narrower, said Mervin Field, a pollster in California since the 1940s.
Merced County, where 39,700 are registered Republicans, may support that notion. More than 20,300 people here voted for Denham. Democrats have 46,000 on their rolls, but mustered only 17,100 votes.
Some political scientists said results here boiled down to parties' success in bringing their faithful to the polls. Democrats in the district count large groups of Latino on their rosters. The GOP's base is the large number of social conservatives.
Polarized districts like this one require different campaign strategies, said Bruce Cain, a political scientist at UC Berkeley.
"This election is an interesting natural experiment in whether mobilization efforts make a difference," he said.
Some registered voters in Modesto, which also lies in the hotly contested 18th Congressional District, said their respective parties had called them repeatedly, urging them to turn out Tuesday.
Democratic strategist Bob Mulholland and GOP press secretary Karen Hanretty said efforts to register voters and urge them to the polls had been key in their 12th-district strategy.
Throughout the election season, pundits and both parties said the results would be close, and both sides claimed leads in the polls at times.