Election Night Live: The Sheriff Race, a.k.a. the 'Hu-'Down (UPDATE: It's All Over!)

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Christopher Victorio / OC Weekly
Hunt in the hunt.
Hunt, Hunter, Hutchens: Do you know who's who? The safe bet is that, even after a fairly testy campaign for the Sheriff's seat, voters are still pretty confused by that whole the-candidates-all-have-the-same-name thing. Tonight, though, we find out which suffix wins out for the most powerful elected office in Orange County. With it be the steaming-tea Constitution-humping of -nt, the establishment hackery/clout of -nter, or the charisma-sucking prudence of -tchens? We'll be in the field with updates throughout the night, so watch this space for the answers.

Update 1:41: By the time we got back down to Bill Hunt's Ballroom of Freedom in Laguna Hills, the final precincts had been counted and the race was done: Hutchens 51.9%, Hunt 28%, Hunter 21%. No run-off needed.

Tim Whitacre was once again on stage, running down the list of races that, given the night's outcome, the tea party crowd could influence in the fall. Hunt stood facing the stage, on the edge of the small dancefloor, flanked by fans. Hands in pockets, shoulders slumped forward, pursed-lip smile on his face, he was the picture up upbeat deflation. 

"There's still the Constitution," we heard one consoler say. Another thanked Hunt for getting him to become more involved in politics than he ever had been in his life. Tonight was rough for the tea partiers: Two self-appointed forefathers reincarnate--DeVore and Hunt--went down (and if you're a special breed of tea partier, so did Orly Taitz). What to make of the loss? "The people have spoken," Hunt said. "That's what this whole thing's about." Then he winked.

Update 12:43: The lights at Original Mike's are on timer, and it's late enough that they all, at once, shut off.

A cry went up: "But she's the sheriff!" The bulbs promptly went back on.

We walked up to the sheriff while she was mid-conversation with a supporter. "...Electoral mandate" she was saying. You can understand what she's talking about: If she wins outright tonight, that means she's no longer in office merely by the whim of three county supervisors. 

"I'm really happy," she tells us. "It was difficult being an appointed sheriff. This is validation by the people." 

Update 12:25: Sandra Hutchens is being adorable right now.

On the foot step of a gorgeous, cherry-colored antique Packard auto in Original Mike's, the Sheriff sits with her legs crossed, her elbow on her knee, her chin on her knuckles, looking up at the screen with the Registrar of Voters' results. She's beaming. Another update comes: Her lead drops a few points to 52.4%. She's still smiling. With nearly 80% of precincts reporting, you get the sense that she's starting to envision what life might be like without having to campaign in a run-off: bliss.

A group of already-sloshed business guys just took a shot of tequila at the bar. The toast? "To our newly elected sheriff."

Update 12:06: We arrive back at Hutchens HQ at Original Mike's in Santa Ana, just in time to see the slightly whittled-down crowd clustered in a semi-circle around the projector screen. The laptop operator refreshes the screen; it takes ten seconds to load; and then a cry of surprise and glee goes up. 

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Christopher Victorio
Bill Hunt taking a break on election night.
With about half the precincts reporting, Hutchens' support has dropped to 53%, which is still above the 50% no-runoff thresh hold. Hutchens is giggly about this, though her commanding lead has been slowly shrinking over the night. Someone in the cluster says that they had been right; it seems like they had all been standing there, waiting to see who would win a bet.

Update 11:20: Whitacre jumps back on stage and says he's got a "scoop": Sandra Hutchens is now at 54.9%, when she had been at 55.9% less than an hour ago and above 56% at the beginning of the night. And there's more good news for Huntistas, supposedly...
According to Whitacre, the only precincts that have been counted so far have all been in north-county. "And everyone knows where the most hard charging, butt kicking tea party patriots come from, and that's south county!" Whitacre yells. 

After exiting the stage, he does a funky spinaroo move. 

Earlier, a Hunt supporter approached me to comment on our photographer's laptop. When asked how he thought the night was going for Hunt, he didn't seem all that hopeful. But, he said, if Hunt loses it's not the end of the world. "People thought the world would end when Barack won,"he pointed out. "And that hasn't happened." We know a few commentators on FOX News--which is showing on a TV screen in the room--who might disagree.

Update 10:50: A number of familiar faces from the story we ran a few weeks ago on the Tea Party OC GOP Central Committee infiltrators are here at Bill Hunt's party, including Mike Munzig, the Glenn Beck-loving tower of sunshine.

With a still tiny number of precincts reporting, Munzing's in fifth place in his bid to get on central committee, which is encouraging: He needs to place in the top six to get a seat. When I mention to him and his compatriots that Chuck DeVore, one of their heros, has conceded, Munzing finds a silver lining in seconds flat: "At least I won't get so many emails." This reporter with a slammed, DeVore-propaganda-filled inbox, echoes that sense of relief.

Hunt campaign man and GOP talkative talker Tim Whitacre just got on the mic to update the room on the fact that Hutchen's lead has lessened ever-so-slightly. And then he said this would be a long but fun night; it'd be more fun, he suggested, if people would start making use of the dance floor. Now that's a slideshow we'd love to run.

Update 10:23: Stereotypes sometimes turn out to be true. Hutchens threw a patrician soiree. Hunter: a low-key coffee clatch. And Hunt? Fourth of July in June, of course.

The ballroom of the Hills Hotel in Laguna Hills is looks like it was shot-gun blasted with red, white and blue balloons. Black Eyed Peas and Kelly Clarkson blast out of the speakers. The crowd's a mix of tea-party poster fogeys, young law-enforcement-loving types, vets in wheel chairs and, yes, a few minorities. The rumors are true: Bill Hunt's a populist
.

That doesn't mean he's all that popular though. The Registrar of Voters website is projected up onto a screen, but whoever's manning the laptop is clicking everywhere except for the incoming results of the sheriff's race. The prospect of bringing Hutchens into a run-off is looking slimmer with each minute. "It's disappointing right now," Hunt says. "But you've got to respect the will of the people." If that sounds like concession-speech warm-up, Hunt might agree with you. But, he offers somewhat bewilderedly as he gestures around, "people are optimistic." He doesn't say he is.

Update 9:59: Another tidbit remembered while in the passenger seat on the way to Hunt's party in Laguna Hills: That guy playing acoustic covers of '90s soft rock at Hunter's gathering was actually one of Hunter's boy scouts. Cute! We know there's a punch line in here about Hunter's candidacy being as relevant as the music at his party... oh, there it is. 

With 116 out of 2084 precincts reporting, Hutchens is holding the line at 56%. And Chuck DeVore has conceded in the Senate race. We expect to see some tea-party tears of solidarity when we arrive at Hunt HQ in a few minutes.

Update 9:33: Is Hunter surprised that Hutchens came out of the gate so strongly, with early absentee ballots putting her at 56%? "Yes, I am," he says, standing on the pavement outside the white Christmas lights of Java Joes. "I thought she'd be in the 40s." But, he points out, the night is young. He's hoping to pull ahead of Hunt in the coming hours when the in-person votes are counted: He peaked in the past few weeks, after some absentee ballots had already been cast, with a late endorsement in the OC Register and a few strong hit pieces released against Hunt and his other opponent--whom Hunter refers to only as "her."

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Christopher Victorio
Craig Hunter, coffee cop.
Update 9:16: The scene at Craig Hunter's shindig is decidedly more coffee-house than Hutchen's cocktail party. After all, it's being held at a coffee house (Java Joe's in Yorba Linda). Soccer-parent types lounge about on couches and some guy is strumming a guitar and singing Goo Goo Dolls and Evan McCain covers up on a mini stage in front of a Hunter for Sheriff banner. The only person dressed for politics instead of mochas is campaign manager Alex Avetoom, a young guy in a suit with a flag pin. The vote counts remains static--no new ballots over the past hour--with Hutchens at 56%, Hunt 25% and Hunter 19%. Avetoom doesn't sound all that convinced as he tells me how it's "possible" that Hunter could overtake Hunt one the in-person poll results are counted. "When you're listed as a deputy police chief as opposed to an independent investigatons business owner," he says, referencing Hunter and Hunt's respective ballot designations, "things tend to go more your way."

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Christopher Victorio
Sandra Hutchens, happy and ahead at Original Mike's.
Update 8:13: The question I was hoping to have answered tonight: Who, exactly, shows up to a Sandra Hutchens party? The appointed incumbent, an ex-LAPD deputy, hasn't rallied tea-party fundamentalists like Bill Hunt has, nor does she have the plurality of OC GOP kingmakers behind her like Hunter does. 

But she does have supporters, even though there's not much evidence that she has ardent fans outside of people with personal connections to her. 
I just spoke with two ladies who said they became fans of Hutchens because their husbands have, for years, been on the sheriff's advisory committee--formerly known as Mike Carona's Imperial Revolutionary Guards. "You ask her [Hutchens] a question and she looks you directly in the eyes, and that's how you know she's telling the truth," said one of those ladies, Marybelle Musco.

A whoop went up moments ago from beneath Original Mike's faux-classy chandeliers and animal trophies when the first results rolled in: 56% for Hutchens of the mail-ballots that had been counted. Earlier, Hutchens--in a deep-navy pants suit and swooping gold choker-pendant--had told me she was a little worried about low turnout for the election. The implication is that the fanatics--a.k.a. Bill Hunt supporters--have their influence magnified with low turnout. But if Hutchens is doing this well with early-cast ballots, theoretically the province of such fanatics, she's got to be feeling good right now. It's always tough to tell how this sheriff is feeling, though: She may not be the most experienced politician, but she's clearly learned to never, ever stop smiling.

Update 7:10: Alright, figured out where the three top-cop-wannabes are gonna be tonight: Hunt's at the Hills Hotel in Laguna Hills, Hunter's at Java Joes in Yorba Linda, and Hutchens, according to the nice man who answered her home phone, will be Keeping Us Safe at Original Mike's in Santa Ana.

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Christopher Victorio / OC Weekly
Craig Hunter, a well-oiled machine.
Update 6:54
: Scouting out our plan for the night, we found ourselves getting directions to Craig Hunter's election-night party from Craig Hunter himself. So, how's he feel? That question bought a laugh that was a little too hearty to not be hiding some nerves. "It's hard to say," Hunter offered. "I think we ran a good campaign and I think we peaked right at the right time. But I'm not a professional at this so I don't know."

"I don't think she's going to make 50%," he added. Notice the pronoun. Hunter knows who the front-runner is--that'd be She-riff Hutchens--but he takes comfort in the fact that she can only win outright tonight if she gets a majority of the votes. Get 49.9%, and the race goes to a run-off between the top two vote-earners. To hear him tell it, tonight's a contest for second place.



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