Bernie Sanders can’t get enough of California.
Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, barnstormed the Golden State ahead of the June 2016 primary like no presidential candidate in recent memory. The front-runner in the party’s nascent 2020 field has returned regularly to campaign for a drug price initiative and to urge support for a universal health care bill similar to one he’s proposed in Washington. His next public event comes Friday in San Francisco at the invitation of the nurses union, among his most vocal supporters.
Sanders’ persistent appearances in the nation’s most populous state – a deep-blue bastion whose leaders bill it as the crucible of the resistance to President Donald Trump – underscores California’s possible significance in the party’s upcoming presidential winnowing process that begins with Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
While California has long served as the largest watering hole for Democrats in search of campaign contributions, the increasing possibility that its primary will be moved up to March from June, combined with a new generation of homegrown potential contenders such as U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, further raise its significance for Sanders.
“California could be outcome-determinant in 2020,” said Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic strategist and publisher of the California Target Book, a data-driven compendium on elections. “If you are thinking about running for president, you should operate on the strong assumption that what happens here is going to matter a whole lot.”
California was the biggest source of money for Sanders’ last presidential campaign, with donors here giving $17.1 million – $4.2 million from Los Angeles and Long Beach, $2.7 million from San Francisco and $2.25 million from Oakland. New York was the next-highest state, at almost $7 million. If he runs, he would begin the 2020 contest with a 50-state organization and the proven ability to raise nearly $230 million.
But in addition to his presidential aspirations, Sanders approaches California as one of the nation’s legislative laboratories for his long-held policy initiatives.
“He’s saying the same things now that we were seeing back then,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association and National Nurses United, and a supporter of Sanders’ campaigns dating back to his run for mayor of Burlington, Vt.
“I am hoping Bernie runs for president,” DeMoro said, noting his nonstop travels throughout the U.S. to “raise the consciousness.”
“In the progressive movement,” she added, “Bernie is the de facto president.”
Last year, after adding campaign stops in areas few candidates typically appear – from a community college in Fairfield to an airport in Cloverdale to a municipal auditorium in Riverside – Sanders came back a number of times in the fall to stump for Proposition 61, an unsuccessful drug pricing initiative crushed by nearly $110 million in industry and opposition spending.
“Bernie Sanders attacked California the same way he would Vermont,” said Mark Longabaugh, a senior aide to his presidential campaign. “It was an advantage to him to go to places that other people hadn’t.”
In May, Sanders appeared at a pair of events in Beverly Hills, where in front of thousands of attendees he urged the Democratic-controlled state Legislature to adopt a universal health care measure.
“Please make my life easier,” Sanders pressed. “The great state of California can send a message that will be heard all over this country and all over the world if you pass single-payer here.”
While the issue stalled for the year, his supporters turned out in droves at the state Democratic Party’s annual convention, where they nearly elected a candidate for party chair from far outside the establishment.
Sanders’ relentless campaigning against corporate greed and influence in Washington, rising student debt, and spiraling health care and high prescription drug costs have become rallying cries for the state’s emerging new political order.
“He’s very much in tune with a significant chunk of the electorate and elected officials in California,” Sragow said. “He could see this as an opportunity for a real breakthrough for policies he believes in.”
There are limits to California’s ability to shape the race even with an earlier primary. Democratic delegates are awarded proportionally based on a candidate’s performance. There also will be a chance for other states to move up their primaries, as nine did in 2008. More than 20 states that year shared their primary day with California, the earliest date allowed by the Democratic Party without special exception.
Because the state is so large, and the cost to air television ads so steep, some candidates will have difficulty staying competitive, meaning they would still have to do well in the early states. Should California remain in its earlier March position, experts said it could be a winnowing state that narrows the field to two or three candidates.
“The enormity of the state, and difficulty of slating delegates, is such that there may be only a handful of candidates that can take delegates out of California,” Longabaugh said. “Bernie Sanders would be one of those candidates.”
Paul Mitchell, a consultant and elections expert with Political Data Inc., said under the delegate count and schedule with an earlier primary, California would account for 37 percent of the elected delegates on Super Tuesday, and 33 percent of all delegates elected to that point.
The national party could penalize California if it holds its primary early by stripping it of 70 delegates. Even in that case, California would still have 32 percent of the delegates awarded on Super Tuesday, and 28 percent of all the delegates awarded by that point in the process, he said.
Moving it up “surely could propel a California-native candidate into pole position in the 2020 primary,” Mitchell said.
Despite having home field advantage, Harris, as well as Garcetti, would still need to perform well in early states before the primary pointed west, analysts said. Being from California also has not translated to guaranteed success: Gov. Jerry Brown, who will have the ultimate say on whether to expedite the primary in his home state, twice lost in California, including a third-place finish in 1980 behind Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter.
But the Californians’ presence could lead powerful supporters, as well as donors from Hollywood and the Silicon Valley, to wait until Californians weigh in before throwing their support behind somebody else.
Harris has repeatedly demurred when asked about the 2020 presidential contest. In addition to policy work like bail reform and co-sponsoring Sanders’ “Medicare-for-all” bill, she has been raising money for colleagues – along with her national profile. Harris was recently in Ohio, a key swing state, to fundraise for Sen. Sherrod Brown, who stands for re-election in 2018.
In a side-by-side comparison of Harris’ 2016 Senate primary and Sanders’ campaign against Hillary Clinton, Harris received more votes than him in 38 of 58 counties. She out-polled Sanders by about 30,000 votes in counties where he received more than 50 percent. Overall, she finished with 600,000 more total votes statewide, despite hundreds of thousands more Democratic votes in the presidential primary than the Senate race.
Garcetti’s travels have been more suggestive of presidential aspirations. He went to New Hampshire to rally for a mayoral candidate in Manchester, with his stops documented by state and national media. He’s left other options on the table, from governor to U.S. Senate, after easily winning re-election as mayor with more than 80 percent of the vote in March, though turnout was just 21 percent.
In California, Sanders’ speech Friday was originally planned as a keynote address to the nurses convention, but was moved to an outside venue and made a public event because of the high demand, a spokesman for DeMoro said.
Sanders has been cultivating deep grass-roots ties with progressives here for years.
Before formally launching his 2016 presidential campaign, he appeared at a community event in the East Bay and endorsed a trio of candidates for local office, including Gayle McLaughlin, who was terming out as Richmond’s Green Party mayor and running for the City Council.
“It was a real solidarity moment for us,” said McLaughlin, now an independent candidate for lieutenant governor who won’t take corporate money. “It showed to me that there was support for Bernie Sanders in the Bay Area.”
Sanders wrote the forward to the book, “Refinery Town: Big Money, Big Oil and the Remaking of an American City,” which recounts the history of the Richmond Progressive Alliance’s efforts to force the oil giant Chevron to reduce pollution and pay higher taxes. The alliance endorsed his 2016 presidential campaign and has become an affiliate of Our Revolution, the organization he inspired.
DeMoro, in an interview, reflected on Sanders’ Medicare-for-all news conference last week, where a long list of would-be 2020 rivals squeezed into the frame to relay their support. Among them were Harris, and Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Jeff Merkley of Oregon.
As they spoke about the need for the bill, a top priority of DeMoro’s nurses, she imagined onlookers surveying the lineup of senators and asking themselves one question: “Who is going to be Bernie’s vice president?”
Who: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders
When: 1 p.m. Friday
Where: Yerba Buena Gardens, 750 Howard St., San Francisco