This is not the first time in recent memory that the state Controller’s race went into overtime to determine a winner.

In both the state Controller’s race of 1994 and 2002 Republican Tom McClintock had to wait until after Election Day to see if he won the job. He lost both times, first to Kathleen Connell by 2.3%, then to Steve Westly by less thee-tenths of one percent, a mere 16,811 votes out of over six-and-a-half million cast.

The nip-and-tuck race for second place in this year’s Controller’s race has as much tension as California Chrome’s run for the Triple Crown. Like the California horse, two of the three contestants vying for the second spot in the general election to battle Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin will run out of the money.

John Hrabe over at Calnewsroom has been doing a bang-up job monitoring the subtle shifts in the Controller’s race vote count. His latest figures (as of 2 A.M. this morning) show Betty Yee with a 165-vote lead over John Perez. Both Democrats Yee and Perez have 21.6% of the vote, while Republican David Evans has 21.3%.

Is it just an election oddity that in a few recent elections this particular constitutional office has involved long counts that take days to determine who did best?

The Controller has an important position in the state government. He or she is the state’s chief fiscal officer, conducting audits and reviews of state operations while acting as the state’s accountant and bookkeeper. The Controller can get involved in many aspects of the state government because the holder of the office sits on 76 boards and commissions.

Current Controller John Chiang used the power of the office to thrust himself into a couple of controversial issues as the state’s money manager. First he opposed Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s move to limit state employees to federal minimum wage during a budget crisis. Then he told the legislature that he determined that the legislators did not present a balanced budget and under Proposition 25’s provisions, as Controller, he would not pay them.

Legislators took Chiang to court and a Superior Court judge ruled against him. As Loren Kaye noted on this site at the time Judge David Brown speculated semi-facetiously that if Chiang’s position stood, “the big race in California is going to be for Controller because the Controller is going to be the person. He or she will be the top power in the state.”

Regardless how powerful the post actually is, it certainly has been competitive. There are only so many statewide offices in the state and politicians eye it, perhaps not for what they can do with the office but where it can take them.

Over the last half-century or so, two Controllers, Thomas Kutchel and Alan Cranston, went on to become United States Senators; one Controller was his party’s nominee for governor, but Houston Flournoy lost a close race to a fellow named Jerry Brown in 1974, and another Controller, Gray Davis, did achieve the governorship after a stop in the Lt. Governor’s office.

But, what explains that the Controller’s race is so competitive? As I note it certainly could be a fluke that the state has witnessed so many close Controller races. Otherwise it’s anyone’s guess why this has happened a number of times.

I’ll take a shot. Here’s my guess.

Likely, the voters don’t have a good grasp of exactly what the office does but they do know that it deals with the state’s money. With taxpayers consistently concerned about ‘fraud, waste and abuse’ in government and the proper and efficient use of taxpayers’ money they are trying to pick the best candidate to protect their money. Such concern doesn’t necessarily lend itself to partisan selections at election time as voters consider who best can handle the job making for an often more competitive race.

That’s my best guess on the number of close Controller’s contests. What’s yours?