Democrat Kamala Harris had just concluded remarks to activists Sunday when a pertinent inquiry came from the audience: What could they do at next month’s state party convention to help boost her prospects in the U.S. Senate race?
“Did we plant that question?” Harris asked her campaign manager, letting out a big laugh.
Harris’ meet-and-greet event at a union hall near downtown Los Angeles, the first of several planned across the state, was a chance to move past a staff shakeup and persistent scrutiny of her campaign spending that dominated the fall. The gatherings also allow her to mingle with Democrats she’s been courting for the crucial party endorsement at the upcoming convention.
“Democratic activists expect you to campaign, and they expect you to get them involved in your campaign,” said strategist Rose Kapolczynski, who advised retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. “It’s good to go out and remind activists of your record and why they should support you.”
The party endorsement has traditionally been a powerful signal to voters, particularly those not familiar with the candidates. Harris and her chief rival, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Orange, are reaching out to communicate with delegates as part of their steep climb for the nod at the party’s February gathering in San Jose.
The endorsement question has hung over the party for years. But a new wrinkle was added with the inception of the open-primary system, where the top two candidates regardless of party advance to the runoff. Party support would be especially valuable if the Democrats compete again in the general election.
Harris’ statewide tour speaks to the significance. She also opened a Sacramento office not far from party headquarters to have volunteers start calling delegates.
We’re telling them that Loretta Sanchez is a very viable candidate – a supporter of women’s rights, very good on immigration issues and she’s not afraid to speak her mind.
Carlos Alcalá, chairman of the party’s Chicano Latino Caucus, on his conversations with delegates
Sanchez, meantime, has worked to build support in the Central Valley and in areas east of Los Angeles, where she’s shared stories about her working-class background. Largely dependent on her congressional schedule, she plans to resume her stops across the state later this month. Carlos Alcalá, a party activist who with his wife, Norma, is helping Sanchez contact delegates, said they are hosting phone banks and speaking with hundreds of people.
“We’re telling them that Loretta Sanchez is a very viable candidate – a supporter of women’s rights, very good on immigration issues and she’s not afraid to speak her mind. We have been getting very good reception,” said Carlos Alcalá, chairman of the party’s Chicano Latino Caucus.
Alcalá said he is convinced Sanchez would beat Harris head-to-head in the fall. In the interim, he acknowledged the difficulties of securing the party endorsement but said Sanchez is in position to at least block Harris’ path.
Raymond Bishop, a party delegate from Tarzana, has heard from the Harris and Sanchez campaigns. “I like the fact they are reaching out to people like myself,” he said. Bishop said he admires Harris’ work as state attorney general, pointing to her efforts in the national settlement with banks for their role in the mortgage crisis.
“I am very cautious about getting behind one person, but she has been accessible. And I know she has taken on big money,” Bishop said. “The verdict is not in totally on her, but right now I think of her as a good person who I would support.”
Harris entered the race last winter as the presumptive favorite. As the only candidate in the field elected statewide – twice – she has scooped up endorsements from a long list of prominent Democrats and far outraised her opponents. Her campaign hit a rough patch this fall when The Sacramento Bee reported she was spending a large portion of the money raised. Harris changed campaign managers and said she has restructured to reduce costs though spending cuts involving consultants and staff.
60 Percent of convention votes needed to get state Democratic Party’s backing
Under the current endorsement process, any credentialed delegate or proxy can vote to support a candidate, or choose “no endorsement.” It takes 60 percent of all votes cast to get the party’s backing, a threshold that proved too high for candidates for state controller and secretary of state in 2014.
Ahead of that primary election, and in 2010, state Democratic Party Chairman John Burton implored the candidates to refrain from endorsement campaigns that could prove mutually destructive to the candidates. Last cycle, Burton said he received “many, in fact too many” inquires concerning endorsements for controller and secretary of state.
“To make it clear, I’m casting my vote for no endorsement, because that reflects my opinion,” Burton wrote to Democrats in 2014. “What other members of the party do is totally up to them. But at least you know now where I actually stand and why.”
Burton said he doesn’t plan to weigh in this year. “We took a shot and it didn’t work,” he said by phone. “So why even bother?”
If you think you can get the (expletive) votes, you take your shot.
State Democratic Party Chairman John Burton, not a fan of the process
No amount of asking is going to stop some candidates from seeking the endorsement, Burton added. “If you think you can get the (expletive) votes, you take your shot,” he said. To him, “keeping the party together, that’s what’s important.”
Mike Thaller, a delegate from Bonita in San Diego County, said he has also been contacted by the campaigns and is leaning toward supporting Harris. Still, he bristles at the idea of delegates possibly playing kingmaker before statewide voters can weigh in on their own.
“I think endorsing before the primary is generally not a good idea unless there is a candidate that is really great, or really awful,” said Thaller, chairman of the party’s Progressive Caucus. “If they are both qualified candidates, and good people, and I generally agree with them politically, I wouldn’t endorse either one. Let the chips fall where they may.”
Public polling has consistently shown Harris and Sanchez running in the top two positions, though the Field Poll released last week suggests the same-party dynamic could shift once a large chunk of undecided Republican voters begin engaging in the contest.
Rocky Chávez, an assemblyman from Oceanside, has called on his Republican opponents, former state party chairmen Duf Sundheim and Tom Del Beccaro, to drop out and and support him “so that Republicans and Californians have a fighting chance against Kamala in November.” The GOP takes a largely hands-off approach with candidates leading to the primary and is not expected to endorse.
In Los Angeles on Sunday, Democratic delegate Austin Mejia, a student at Cal State Dominguez Hills, said he is still weighing his options. He wants to know more about where the candidates stand on issues like the Syrian civil war and the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Harris said in addition to wading into policy, she hopes her events help draw attention to what is the state’s first open U.S. Senate election in nearly a quarter century.
“Part of it is just getting people excited about, and understanding, the implications of the outcome of this election,” she said. “And getting them out to vote. At the convention, and then obviously in June at the election.”