California primary becomes a tantalizing prize for 2020 Democrats

California has long been a piggy bank for Democratic presidential hopefuls. In 2020, it’s got something just as compelling as money: a potentially decisive role in the nomination race.

The state’s presidential primary is moving back into the so-called Super Tuesday round of voting next year, joining at least 13 other states on March 3 after an initial shake-out for the campaigns in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. At stake is the biggest cache of delegates available in the nomination race, three times the number available in the first four contests combined.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., during an event in Oakland, Calif., to launch presidential campaign on Jan. 27, 2019. (Bloomberg photo by David Paul Morris)

That gives California Democrats the chance to either reshuffle or solidify the standings in the party’s biggest-ever field of candidates.

“We’ve been the caboose on this train for long enough,” former California governor Gray Davis said. Adds his fellow Democrat, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti: “California could wipe out everybody’s gains in other places.”

The importance of the California primary isn’t lost on the field of 22 Democratic hopefuls, almost all of whom have made trips to the Golden State this year. For the party’s state convention, which begins May 31 in San Francisco, 14 presidential contenders so far have said they would come, including home-state U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, New Jersey’s Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Former vice president Joe Biden, the early and clear front-runner in the race, hasn’t announced his plans.

Adding to the sense of urgency is the fact that early voting in California is set to begin Feb. 3, 2020 — the same day as the Iowa caucuses that officially kick off the nomination race. The possibility of a surge in early California votes, which won’t be tallied until the primary, dangles some hope for candidates seeking to keep their campaigns alive even if they have a poor showing in the four earlier states.

In 2016, the California primary was held in June, and by then the race between Hillary Clinton and Sanders was essentially over. In 2008, it was part of the multi-state Super Tuesday set of contests. The state’s lawmakers voted to move up the primary two years ago in a bill they called the Prime Time Primary Act. “Candidates will not be able to ignore the largest, most diverse state in the nation as they seek our country’s highest office,” Secretary of State Alex Padilla said at the time.

Garcetti has been courted by several of the candidates. During a stop with Biden last week, Garcetti said he wants “to make sure that people are not just coming here for donations but they’re taking care of issues that matter to us.”

The state, the largest by population and home to many wealthy individuals in real estate, technology and the entertainment industries, has always been a destination for candidates looking for contributions. Barack Obama came to Los Angeles so often to raise money, both before and after he was elected president, that locals coined a term for the resulting traffic, Obamajam.

None of the Democratic hopefuls has as much at stake in California as Harris, a Berkeley native who served as the state’s attorney general before being elected to the U.S. Senate. While there have been few recent polls, a Quinnipiac University survey conducted last month showed her supported by just 17% of California’s likely Democratic voters, trailing Biden, at 26%, and Sanders, at 18%.

Harris has been an aggressive fundraiser, however, ranking second overall behind Sanders nationally, with $12 million raised in the first quarter. She dominated California fundraising in the first three months of the year, bringing in almost $4.4 million in the state — more than four times as much as any other Democratic candidate.

“I’m going to compete here and compete hard and try to earn every vote I can get,” she said in an interview during a San Francisco event last Thursday. “I’m not going to take anybody for granted.”

Candidates face a delicate balancing act in deciding how much time to devote to California, said the state’s Democratic attorney general, Xavier Becerra, a Harris supporter.

“Everybody else has to think about how often they’re going to come to California because you can’t just sort of ignore it,” Becerra said in an interview. “It does make it tougher if you haven’t raised the kind of money that it takes to compete in California because we’ll end up sucking up all the resources if you’re not careful.”

The state has more than 400 pledged available on primary day. Lisa Garcia Bedolla, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, noted that they aren’t awarded in a winner-take-all fashion. That means candidates may try to pick up delegates by appealing to specific interest groups or congressional districts. “Candidates will have to reach out to a more diverse electorate sooner,” she said. “That should affect field strategy and policy proposals.”

Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and the first openly gay candidate to be a serious presidential contender, swept into Los Angeles last Thursday. He stopped at a rally to support school funding and made his pitch at five fundraisers, including one at actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s house and another at the Abbey, a gay bar in West Hollywood.

He had plenty of fans at the bar. He was introduced by his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, as a supporter sold rainbow-colored “Pete 2020” hats and T-shirts outside.

“Yes, West Hollywood, we know, that you’re not free if a county clerk gets to tell you who you ought to marry, because we know that love is long and freedom is on the line in our ability to have marriage equality,” Buttigieg told the cheering crowd before moving on for weekend events in San Francisco.

Still, several contributors in the audience said they had yet to make up their mind on who they’d vote for in the primary.

Deborah Dent, a retiree who drove 40 miles from her home in Simi Valley with her husband Greg, said she wanted to see the candidates address immigration and how federal programs might combat homelessness in the region. “I want to see everyone,” she said.

Karen Eyres, a 57-year-old U.S. Census Bureau worker, said she had narrowed her choices to Harris, Buttigieg and Warren — and that she was looking forward to March.

“It’ll demonstrate the power of California,” she said.

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