THE BLOG
06/10/2010 10:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Betsy Butler Smear: The Primary Result

The final votes are in from the 53rd District State Assembly Democratic primary.

You may recall the race, which I have written about here over the past couple of weeks. A quick recap, however, for those just joining the party. (You can read an earlier column if you'd like full details.):

A hidden consortium of big oil, drug and insurance companies (whose board of directors include BP, Anthem Blue Cross, Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil and 52 others) spent a massive amount of money in an attempt to smear and defeat candidate Betsy Butler, claiming that she was in the pocket of big oil, drug and insurance companies. Which, bizarrely, is who they are. In truth, Ms. Butler was endorsed by such groups as the Child Abuse Prevention Center, Planned Parenthood and California Nurses Association.

Though just a primary, the district is heavily Democratic, and the winner will be favored to win the general election.

Here are the results.

Betsy Butler, 7,588 - 27%
James Lau, 5,055 - 18%
Nick Karno, 4,086 - 14%
Mitch Ward, 3,972 - 14%
Kate Anderson, 3,354 - 12%
Peter Thottam, 1,616 - 6%
Edgar Saenz, 1,569 - 6%
Diane Wallace, 1,211 - 4%

Despite all the efforts to smear her, Betsy Butler won. And not only won, but won pretty handily. Won by 50% over her next closest opponent.

What you can also see is how incredibly small this race was. The winner only received seven-five hundred votes. All of which makes the amount of money spent to smear and defeat Betsy Butler all the more odd. (Odd is the polite term for "offensive.")

The various consortiums spent $572,000 against Ms. Butler. In the last week of the campaign, not getting the impact they wanted from the smear attacks, they switched tactics. Instead, one anti-Butler organization gave $36,000 to another of the candidates, James Lau, in hopes that an individual opponent would be able to overtake her. (The huge influx of money allowed Lau supporters a last push. On the Saturday before the election, five separate Lau fliers arrived at my house.)

To be clear, there's no indication that Lau solicited this new money. Among other things, he - like Butler - was a strong, green environment candidate. What he wasn't, though, was Betsy Butler. Which to the big oil, drug and insurance company opponents was all that mattered.

So, what happened?

In a poetic twist, it appears that this smear effort was so massively over-the-top that its vastness backfired and may well have helped push Betsy Butler to victory.

In a small election like this, and one with eight candidates, it's difficult for anybody to stand out from the pack. What all the virulent smear fliers did, though, was bring attention to Ms. Butler. Rather than eight unknown names running, there were "seven unknown names and that Betsy Butler person." Further, because it was such a small, local race, the stream of anonymous pounding was so unrelenting that something began to seem off about it and raised far more questions about those doing the blasting than about their subject. And finally, so much non-stop negativity simply turned off voters. As Butler herself noted, she heard from many people who simply became offended by the slamming that was perceived as being unfair. These were people who said they hadn't known who they were going to vote for before, but now would be voting for her. While she may have lost some votes as a result of the smear campaign, it appears likely she gained many more.

As the campaign began, Ms. Butler was one of the three or four leading candidates. She had strong endorsements, and a long career in causes that were important to the district. So, she may well have won regardless of the smear effort. Her campaign staff and volunteers ran a particularly strong campaign, making repeated personal calls to voters. But the smears not only got her attention in voter mailboxes, they also brought her coverage in local newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, as well as the Daily Breeze, one of the areas better-read small publications.

In the end, what's important in this race is the direct opposite of the norm. It's not about who won - Betsy Butler was in strong company with an abundance of very good candidates in the race. What's important is who lost. That despite hiding behind anonymity, the big oil, drug and insurance companies from BP, Anthem Blue Cross, Dow Chemical and more were not able to defeat a candidate through lies, gross amounts of money and intimidation.

The voters of the 53rd district were able to see through it all.

Having clear sight is a good thing, because no doubt the big oil, drug and insurance consortiums will open their vast checkbooks and begin throwing the mud (or in BP's case, excess oil) against Butler all the harder. If you want to see the effect of the Citizens United case in the Supreme Court, here it is, big as day.

And the reason they'll keep slinging is because, on Tuesday, against all their initial efforts, this time, the Butler did it.