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How California could jolt the 2020 presidential race

LOS ANGELES — California is pushing forward with a plan to change the state’s primary date from June to March, a move that could scramble the 2020 presidential nominating contest and swing the early weight of the campaign to the west.

If adopted by the legislature this week — as is widely expected — and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, the early primary would allocate California’s massive haul of delegates just after the nation’s first contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

The earlier primary could benefit at least two potential presidential contenders from California — U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti — while jeopardizing the prospects of other candidates who will struggle to raise enough early money to compete in expensive media markets in the nation’s most populous state.

“In all probability, the winner of the California primary would be the nominee,” said Don Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman from South Carolina.

While acknowledging that “a lot of this rationale this far in advance just is completely wrong,” Fowler said, “The implications for the flow of the winnowing process [of candidates] is very significant in moving California.”

California for years has sought to exert greater influence in presidential elections. Despite its size, the state has been a relative afterthought in national campaigns, marginalized not only because of its late primary, but because of the high cost of campaigning here.

In 2008, the state tried to change that by holding a February primary. But more than 20 other states also moved up their contests in response and while California drew a competitive race, the outcome was not decisive — Hillary Clinton won the primary here, but lost the nomination.

“They can change the dates all they want — we’ve tried this over and over and over, and it has not worked,” said Tony Quinn, a political analyst and former Republican legislative aide in California. “I think what you’re dealing with are politicians who don’t have any memory.”

The 2008 Democratic primary in California was relatively muted in part because of Clinton’s deep fundraising and political ties here and a relatively small field of candidates. But the 2020 Democratic field is shaping up to be many times larger.

Karen Skelton, a Sacramento-based political strategist who worked in Bill Clinton’s White House, said that after the 2008 experience, “It’d be interesting to see what California would do with a wide-open primary field where there was no clear frontrunner.”

By hosting an earlier primary, California could immediately gain significant clout in the party’s nominating process, since the state’s proportionate delegate haul could prove decisive in a 2020 field that’s likely to be historically crowded.

Politically powerful Californians such as Brown, Sen. Dianne Feinstein or former Sen. Barbara Boxer stand to become informal king-makers if they choose to wade into the primary. And it would also increase the likelihood that national figures interested in 2020 could weigh in on the 2018 governor’s race in an attempt to build name recognition, get donor face-time, and collect political allies ahead of their presidential runs.

Already a top fundraising destination for presidential hopefuls of both parties, California might become an even more significant fundraising center for campaigns that can persuade donors their money will be spent in state. California would also likely see far more public appearances from potential candidates who could easily tack on speeches and rallies to their behind-closed-doors West Coast fundraising swings.

“In the past, New York and California for Democratic candidates were just states where you raise money,” explained former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who ran for president in 2008. “Both, because of their lateness in the primary, were not significant, so it changes California to becoming a major, major state for the party, which is healthy because it just, in the past, has been a dumping ground for fundraising. Yet it’s a state that’s a trend-setter.”

Bob Mulholland, a longtime Democratic strategist in California, has warned against moving the primary up. He said a decisive vote in California could depress primary turnout in later-voting states, damaging Democrats’ turnout operations in other states that, while smaller, are more critical to Democrats in the general election than solidly blue California.

“It has a big potential to shut the primary system down and to basically eliminate primaries in any state in May or June,” he said.

But the legislation awaiting a vote in Sacramento has faced little opposition and, with passage near certain, no lobbying from Harris or Garcetti. Democratic consultants in California said an earlier primary could benefit those candidates, but noted they would still have to perform well in the first four contests.

“They’d still have to run the gamut,” Skelton said. “A scenario where a Garcetti or Harris came out of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina kind of weak, it’s not going to be convincing that they could take California. They still have a lot to prove.”

Garcetti, who traveled to New Hampshire last month to campaign for a Democrat running for mayor of Manchester, told POLITICO recently that in primary scheduling, “I’m more concerned about what’s best for all Americans, not just what’s best for our state.”

“I’ve gone to Iowa. It’s amazing to see in a small setting people actually get the chance to touch and feel and vet candidates,” he said. “But we want to make sure that’s done in diverse states and big states like California that, you know, like in the Senate, our vote isn’t watered down.”

It’s not just Harris and Garcetti who could stand to benefit from an earlier primary in their home state. San Francisco billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer has refused to rule out a run of his own after increasing his name recognition in California with television ads last year, and both Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren are also popular among Californians.

While the Democratic Party opens its California primary to independent voters, the Republican Party does not. And despite widespread disdain for Trump in this heavily Democratic state, the GOP is no more likely in California than elsewhere to abandon the Republican president.

“Republican Party turnout still looks in general like Republican turnout in other states,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican consultant who worked on anti-Trump efforts in California in 2016.

Stutzman, who said there is a “good chance” he will work for a Republican challenger to Trump in 2020, said the expense of campaigning in California “could very well be to Trump’s advantage.”

An earlier California primary may irk political honchos in the first four voting states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina — but it would also put a new premium on specific kinds of candidates who may not tend to emerge from the early stages of the process in other years.

First, candidates who are able to raise more money early on will likely welcome the change, since California is a notoriously expensive state in which to compete due to its size and multiple television markets.

Fowler said “a retail candidate cannot compete in California — it’s just physically and financially impossible.” And across the state line from California in Nevada, which could get more candidate facetime on their swings west, former Clark County Democratic Party Chairman Chris Miller said an earlier California primary “would hugely change the complexion” of the presidential nominating contest.

“California’s an expensive state to play in,” he said. “Obviously because of several different high-dollar media markets, and obviously just the size of the state and being able to campaign in it that early in the race would definitely hammer out anybody who’s not organized or doesn’t have the ability to organize.”

And as a more diverse state than many of the other important ones in the early primary process, California could also elevate Hispanic and African American candidates at a time when multiple minority figure are considering presidential runs, including Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

Finally, noted Richardson, it could give Westerners a larger piece of the process.

Democrats have never nominated someone from the West to lead their presidential ticket, but a handful of party members from that part of the country could run in 2020, including Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, in addition to the Californians.

Lawmakers in Washington state have discussed holding an earlier primary, and former Oregon Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins said a move by California could “spur a conversation” in her state about primary timing. But Atkins, chairwoman of Oregon’s Democratic Party, said the 2020 primary schedule is generally “not on people’s radar screens at the moment.”

Across the country from California, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner said he does not “have any beef” with California setting a primary date in March. But he warned it is impossible to predict whether an earlier or later primary will be advantageous in 2020.

Recalling California’s previous massaging of the primary schedule, he said, “California has moved up and moved back, and they’ve moved up, and I’m not sure any of them have turned out the way people thought.”

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