California has become so reliably Democratic that the state hasn’t backed a Republican for president in more than a quarter century.
So the likelihood of a campaign for the masses next year appears slim.
But in the more rarified, early race for presidential campaign money, fierce competition is underway. California is a major source of campaign financing, and many donors who helped Mitt Romney draw millions of dollars from California in 2012 remain undecided about whom to support next year.
Now, week after week, candidates come courting these donors at luncheons, in boardrooms and on the phone.
For a state that will recede back into electoral obscurity when the caucuses and elections start up in early primary states, this is California’s Iowa moment.
After Romney announced in January that he would not run again, “The phone rang pretty quickly and pretty constantly,” said Tom Tellefsen, a financial adviser and donor bundler who chaired Romney’s fundraising effort in California in 2012.
“You get calls from everybody,” he said.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who spoke Saturday at the state Republican Party’s biannual convention in Sacramento, sandwiched his appearance between private meetings with potential donors in San Francisco and Southern California.
Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal and Ben Carson have all stopped in the state, and Scott Walker is expected to touch down after Christie leaves.
California is significant at this early stage of the campaign not only because it exports so much money – more than any other state in 2012 – but also because allegiances are considered looser here than in some other big donor states.
Bush, a former governor of Florida, and Rubio, a U.S. senator there, spent years developing fundraising networks in Florida. Perry, a former governor, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz have done the same in Texas.
Those connections are less immediate in California, and the lack of a clear front-runner gives donors in this state pause.
“A lot of key folks are probably waiting … to see how this plays out over the summer,” said Tom Ross, political director for New Majority California, a group of wealthy Republican donors in Orange County, Los Angeles and San Diego.
New Majority, with its $10,000 annual membership dues, is a focal point for fundraising in Southern California. In the past year, the group has hosted Perry, Rubio, Carson, Jindal and Walker, among other potential candidates.
Christie addressed the group a day before he spoke at the state party convention, and aides to Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina contacted club organizers last week.
Bush already has raised millions of dollars at high-profile fundraisers around the country. He appears to have gripped an early fundraising advantage in California as well.
Bush’s family has raised presidential money here for decades, and the last Republican California chose in a presidential race was Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, in 1988.
“Jeb clearly has the advantage,” Ross said. However, he added, “I think you’ve got other candidates who have relationships in the state that are working them.”
The stakes are enormous. Romney raised $41.3 million from California in 2012, about 12 percent of his total fundraising nationwide, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. President Barack Obama raised nearly $63 million.
This is despite little campaigning by Obama or Romney in California, a safe Democratic state. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, is expected to rely heavily on Hollywood and Bay Area donors once she announces her candidacy. Unlike on the Republican side, a dearth of competition from other Democrats has minimized the amount of donor jockeying required of Clinton in the run-up to the campaign.
“We’re just the place where you come and get your bag of cash,” said Mark Petracca, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine. “You come, you talk, you collect, you leave.”
Al Montna, a rice farmer from Sutter County who helped Romney raise money four years ago, predicted California Republicans will spread their contributions among candidates more widely this year.
Fundraising efforts for Romney began in California two years before the last election, Montna said. It is already later than that this election cycle, and Montna said “most of these other guys are starting from scratch. … It’s a wide open field this time.”
The donor pool is also larger than it was four years ago, too, with Republicans paying increasing attention to the Silicon Valley.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky spoke last year at a conference organized by Lincoln Labs, a group of conservatives in the technology industry, then announced plans to open an office in the Bay Area. Sean Parker, the Napster co-founder and first president of Facebook, is among Paul’s early donors.
“The question,” said Marty Wilson, a veteran Republican strategist, “is what about the newer money, the technology money? Where are they going?”
Christie, who campaigned in California for failed gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman in 2010, visited the area more recently as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. Whitman was among the sponsors of Christie’s meeting in San Francisco on Friday. When he came for his gubernatorial campaign in 2013, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg hosted a fundraiser for him.
Internet marketer Sinan Kanatsiz, who attended the Zuckerberg event and is helping Bush this year, said he expects many traditional donors in Orange County to line up behind Bush.
However, he said, “When it comes to the Bay Area, I think you’re going to see a lot more diversity, because you’ve got more of a center approach to politics.”
Duf Sundheim, a former chairman of the California Republican Party, described the candidates’ early maneuvering in California as taking a soft touch, with only the suggestion of a future financial commitment.
“From the candidates’ perspective, I haven’t seen any tearing down other guys to raise themselves,” said Sundheim, who is considering running for U.S. Senate. “Right now it’s all just kind of introducing themselves to the people and understanding that, further down the line, it’ll probably be a little different.”
Sundheim described the “typical path being plowed” as visits to New Majority and Lincoln clubs, and to more exclusive meetings with “key donors in different regions of the state who have strong reputations who are able to get 25, 50 people together for an event.”
Tellefsen said he is focusing on Bush, Christie, Walker – the governor of Wisconsin – and Rubio as he evaluates candidates, searching for a connection with one.
“I’m looking for an understanding of what role I could play, since it’s all new relationships, and I’m looking for, ‘Can they win?’ or ‘How can they win?’” he said. “Those are the criteria that pretty much everybody is using.”
The donors’ indecisiveness reflects broader uncertainty about the field of potential candidates. A recent Field Poll of likely Republican voters in California showed Walker and Bush running ahead, but only marginally, and with a muddle of hopefuls behind them.
Outside of donor meetings, Christie’s appearance at the convention Saturday was one of the few indications of the upcoming presidential race. Many major potential candidates went unrepresented, though supporters of Carson, a former neurosurgeon, distributed literature in the convention halls.
Rank-and-file activists are inclined to optimism, and every four years they hold out hope that California will matter in a presidential contest.
“The last go-around it seems like we got ignored because, you know, they came and got money and then went to the other states,” said Dean Haddock, chairman of the party’s Kern County operation. “It seemed like all the Republican candidates had given up on California.”
This year, Haddock said, “We are in a new day.”
Haddock said Cruz’s father, Rafael, stayed at his house for a couple of days when he visited Kern County last year. Haddock was uncertain about the breadth of Rafael Cruz’s agenda, but fundraising was part of it.
“I know that he went to several different places,” Haddock said, “and we arranged … for him to meet with a few groups that often are good donors.”
Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.