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State Schools Chief Primaries Prompt Runoffs in Calif., S.C.

The race for state schools chief in California will extend to the state's general election in November, after none of the three leading candidates captured a simple majority to claim the nonpartisan office in Tuesday's primary.

As of early this morning, with 99 percent of the state's precincts reporting, retired superintendent Larry Aceves led the pack of three with 18.8 percent of the votes, followed by state assemblyman Tom Torlakson with 18.1 percent, and state Sen. Gloria Romero with 17.2 percent. Those are some very tight results.

If those numbers hold, then Mr. Aceves and Mr. Torlakson will face off on the November ballot—not the result that most close watchers of this race were expecting.

That Mr. Aceves, who has never before run for public office, emerged as the leading vote-getter was somewhat of a surprise, though he had substantial financial backing through an independent expenditure committee set up by the the Association of California School Administrators. For months, the campaign to replace outgoing state chief Jack O'Connell had been widely cast (including by this blogger) as a fight between the California Teachers Association, which backed Mr. Torlakson, and EdVoice, a non-profit education reform group which supported Ms. Romero. All along, Mr. Aceves pitched himself as outside the union-vs.-reformer battle and touted his decades-long experience as a district superintendent.

The CTA, along with the California Federation of Teachers, sank money into radio spots for Mr. Torlakson, while EdVoice, with money from wealthy supporters, bought television ads for Ms. Romero.

Of course, the race for the Republican gubernatorial U.S. Senate nominations overshadowed all others in California as two female, former corporate executives, sailed to easy victory over their rivals. Meg Whitman, former CEO of eBay, won decisively over Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner (a founder, by the way, of EdVoice). She will take on the Democratic state Attorney General Jerry Brown in November. Former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina won the GOP Senate primary and will take on Democratic stalwart Barbara Boxer, who is seeking her fourth term.

In South Carolina, where the state chief's race is a partisan one, Democrat Frank Holleman, who was a top aide to former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, won his primary with 56 percent of the vote. Who he will face in November won't be decided until June 22 when the top two Republican vote-getters—a college president and a home-schooling mother—duke it out in a runoff.

Current South Carolina schools chief, Jim Rex, lost his bid to become the Democratic nominee for governor.

UPDATE: Larry Aceves, who captured the most votes of any of California's state superintendent candidates, just called to chat about his surprise first-place finish. He is expecting to face off against Mr. Torlakson, who finished a hair behind Mr. Aceves.

Without a doubt, Mr. Aceves said, his newcomer status to elective politics and his years of experience actually running schools put him over the top, even against better-known, better-financed opponents.

"I think that people had the feeling that yes, it is time to put someone in this job that knows about what goes on inside classrooms," Mr. Aceves said. I wonder too, how much it helped Mr. Aceves to have "retired superintendent" under his name on the ballot, especially in a race that few voters would have paid any attention to. Polls done more than a year ago strongly suggested that such a title was a boon to his candidacy.

Without naming names, Mr. Aceves said a campaign that stressed the dysfunction of California's schools and the need for radical change may have misfired with voters. Ms. Romero ran on a message of being a pro-charter, aggressive reformer.

"The idea that we are going to blow things up and fire people, that didn't sit well with people," he said. "A lot of people love their schools and the teachers that their kids have."

But Mr. Aceves stressed that the status quo isn't acceptable either. He said all players in the state's education realm, especially the teachers' unions, are going to have to be willing to make changes that may be hard to swallow. Of course, how much change anyone in K-12 will be asked to make is going to depend much more on who ends up in the governor's office.

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