New poll suggests Riverside County Sheriff Bianco faces divided electorate; still, no challenger

·6 min read
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco speaks during a Concerned Citizens of La Quinta event at the La Quinta Resort and Club in La Quinta, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco speaks during a Concerned Citizens of La Quinta event at the La Quinta Resort and Club in La Quinta, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022.

Voters are divided on whether to support Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco in this year’s upcoming election, and his past membership with the Oath Keepers could factor into his re-election chances, a poll released Thursday shows. But with just a few weeks left until the filing period starts, a challenger for the seat has yet to emerge.

The poll, conducted this week by Public Policy Polling, shows Bianco faces a split electorate in which opinions shift based on voters' knowledge of the first-term incumbent: In initial questioning, 40% of the poll’s respondents preferred Bianco over a new sheriff, while 32% would back a theoretical challenger.

However, those numbers flipped after the poll’s respondents were informed of Bianco’s 2014 membership with the far-right Oath Keepers organization, his resistance to enforcing mask mandates within Riverside County and the increase in concealed carry weapon permits issued since he took office.

After the poll noted those points, a substantial portion of respondents changed their minds, with 48% of voters saying it’s time for someone new, while 39% responded they would still vote to re-elect Bianco.

Bianco’s past membership with the Oath Keepers was the largest point of concern for voters: 59% of respondents said they have either very serious or somewhat serious concerns about Bianco after hearing about his 2014 membership with the organization, whose founder was recently charged with seditious conspiracy for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The poll, which surveyed 812 likely voters and includes a 3.4-point margin of error, also reflects the political diversity of Riverside County, with 38% of respondents identifying as Democrats, 38% as Republicans and 24% as independent or third-party voters, according to Jim Williams, a polling analyst for Public Policy Polling.

That breakdown slightly overrepresents Republicans, who account for roughly 31% of registered county voters, and underrepresents Democrats, who account for roughly 40% of registered voters in Riverside County, according to voter registration figures.

The poll was paid for by the Riverside Alliance for Safety and Accountability, a group seeking to oust Bianco in this year’s election. Joy Silver, the organization’s co-chair, said the poll shows a substantial portion of the county’s voters are “ready for a change.”

“I think the poll gives a lot of confidence to a candidate considering stepping out,” Silver said. “We hear a lot about Sheriff Bianco, but we don’t really hear about how people are feeling about all of this. I think any candidate in any race needs to know information like this. You’ve got to know you can win, right?”

But with only a few weeks until the county’s filing period begins, a challenger to Bianco remains theoretical, as no candidates have publicly declared against the sheriff, who was first elected in 2018 with about 58% of the vote in the general election.

“I’m not seeing that candidate — that doesn’t mean they’re not there, because I don’t know everything,” Silver said. “Ostensibly, a candidate can declare up until they close the filing period (in March), and I always thought a candidate would wait until the end of filing before actually jumping out, because then it’s the heavy campaign period, and there’s less time to build up a campaign against anybody running.”

The poll also separately asked voters to choose between Bianco and a candidate “who believes no one is above the law” — phrasing that led to a higher percentage of voters supporting a newcomer, with 52% saying they would support that candidate, 29% supporting Bianco and 19% unsure.

Bianco, in a response statement, denounced the poll as biased, arguing it was “unprofessionally written” and “nothing but a waste of RASA money in an attempt at making themselves feel warm and fuzzy.”

Bianco also pushed back against specific points raised in the poll, including questions about his refusal to enforce COVID-19 mask mandates and the increase in concealed carry weapon permits.

“Only the far left believe law enforcement officials should be enforcing mask mandates, and every person with any logic or common sense knows that gun permits have nothing to do with crime,” Bianco said. “Law abiding persons request gun permits, not criminals.”

“The Riverside County Sheriff's department, under my leadership, and for the first time in recent history, is at the forefront of crime suppression, crime prevention, community engagement and transparency," he added. "The overall majority of Riverside County residents want a Sheriff who will keep them safe, protect their community, and proactively tackle crime. I am confident voters will re-elect me to continue what they elected me to do in the first place.”

Bianco touts relationship with Hestrin at La Quinta event

With campaign season slowly getting underway ahead of the June 7 election, Bianco made a stop in the Coachella Valley this week, speaking at an event organized by the Concerned Citizens of La Quinta group Wednesday night.

The event featured a wide range of speakers, headlined by the incumbent sheriff, Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin and recent gubernatorial recall candidate and Republican Larry Elder — who was endorsed by Bianco ahead of his unsuccessful bid to replace Gavin Newsom last year.

Given the sheriff’s department contracts with La Quinta for law enforcement services, Bianco noted crime has dipped in the mid-valley city — aside from an uptick in motor vehicle thefts — amid a backdrop in which property and violent crimes in California rose in 2021.

“Overall, you have quality of life issues,” Bianco said. “Like everyone, you have homeless issues, you have vagrancy issues, you have property crimes … we’re doing everything we can to address that.”

Bianco also touted his relationship with Hestrin, who will face at least two challengers — Riverside County Superior Court Judge Burke Strunsky and Temecula-based defense attorney Lara Gressley — in his re-election bid this year.

“You are very, very fortunate to have me and to have Mike leading your law enforcement efforts in this county, because there are only 58 of us in the state or 58 of him in the state, and we meet regularly,” Bianco said. “Mike and I are unique in this state in that the sheriff and the district attorney get along.”

Bianco also said it's “unfortunate we’re in political season again,” telling the crowd they will hear criticism of Hestrin from his opponents.

“I'm here to tell you that, for me to be completely successful in keeping you safe, I really need to have (Hestrin) fighting alongside with me,” Bianco said, adding he is “looking forward to doing this for a long time.”

The elections for the district attorney and sheriff positions in Riverside County is set for June 7, with the potential for a run-off if no candidate receives a simple majority of the vote.

This story has been updated to include a response from Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco.

Tom Coulter covers politics. He can be reached at thomas.coulter@desertsun.com or on Twitter @tomcoulter_.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: New poll suggests Riverside County Sheriff Bianco faces divided electorate