In early January, Democratic congressional candidate Regina Bateson was unequivocal. If the state party endorsed someone else in her race, she would end her campaign so Democrats could focus on unseating Republican Rep. Tom McClintock.
“If someone else gets endorsed, I will not continue to run as an ‘unendorsed Democrat,’ because I think that would be counter-productive and jeopardize the end goal of beating McClintock,” Bateson, one of three Democrats running in the district, e-mailed the chairs of the Tahoe Truckee Democratic Club on Jan. 7.
Yet on Friday, Bateson’s campaign filed the paperwork to get her name on the ballot for California’s June 5 “top-two” primary, despite the fact that the state party endorsed fellow Democrat Jessica Morse last month. That’s elicited an angry reaction from some local party leaders, like Tahoe Truckee Democratic Club co-chair Paco Lindsay, who believe Bateson has gone back on her word.
In a March 8 post on Facebook, Lindsay claimed that in addition to her statement to the club, Bateson promised in a phone call to him shortly before the party vote that “she would step down if the endorsement went to another candidate.” He urged Bateson to “Quit this campaign for the best interest of California and the country. And for honesty and integrity.” Other state party officials have also called on Bateson to end her campaign.
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But Bateson, a Roseville native and MIT professor who is on unpaid leave, isn’t budging. Instead, she and her supporters have alleged that in its push to rally behind one candidate, the Democratic Party is ignoring the will of grassroots voters – a complaint that’s popped up in other California races and around the country as Democrats grapple with a historic number of congressional candidates. Meanwhile, supporters for all three candidates have accused backers from other campaigns of bullying and harassment during and after the convention.
Emotions were already raw among 4th district activists, who drew national attention for their healthcare-related protests of McClintock last year. And it appears that an endorsement process meant to unify Democrats has instead produced more bad blood among party’s most fervent volunteers and activists.
All three of the Democrats running for McClintock’s seat had promised to end their campaign if the state party endorsed a fellow candidate. Bateson, herself, had been clear for months that Democrats’ best chance of upsetting McClintock hinged on lining up behind one candidate and launching the general election campaign this winter. In recent years, Democrats have lost by double-digit margins in the Republican-leaning district, which includes Sacramento suburbs like Roseville and El Dorado Hills as well as Lake Tahoe and Yosemite.
“The endorsement process really does matter and here’s why: I think that the way we beat Tom McClintock in this district is to put one endorsed Democrat on the ballot in June. That June election is not a primary, it is the first round of the general election,” Bateson said at an El Dorado County candidate forum in Cameron Park in November.
Bateson explains her change of heart as the result of concerns about the endorsement process that began cropping up shortly before the convention. Specifically, “the voters of the district weren’t having their voices heard in that process,” Bateson told The Sacramento Bee. “In a close, competitive race like this it’s best that the voters get to decide who moves forward.”
Other Bateson supporters were more pointed. Susan Gutowsky of Roseville was, until recently, the president of the Placer Women Democrats, a local club affiliated with the Democratic Party, whose members voted to endorse Bateson in a non-binding poll. Gutowsky said that despite overwhelming support for Bateson among the local clubs in Placer County, the county’s Democratic Central Committee members all voted for Morse at the convention in San Diego on Feb. 24. She and others delegates who back Bateson also complained of “heavy-handed” behavior by state party officials, who leaned on delegates to endorse Morse.
That resulted in “a huge mismatch between the grassroots support on the ground and the delegate vote,” argued Gutowsky, who resigned her post with the Placer Women Democrats over the party’s endorsement. As a chartered Democratic club, board members are required to line up behind the party’s endorsed candidate.
Morse, a Carmichael native who recently moved to Pollock Pines, was the frontrunner going into the convention, having won 54 percent of delegates at a pre-endorsement vote in January. It wasn’t sufficient for the former State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development aide to win the endorsement outright, but enough to get a vote in San Diego. Morse ended up winning more than 60 percent of the delegate votes at the convention, crossing the threshold needed to earn the state party’s imprimature.
On Friday, California Democrats sent out a fundraising email featuring Morse and its seven other endorsed Democratic challengers running against Republican members of Congress. In several other crowded congressional races, the party wasn’t able to coalesce around any of the candidates.
John Vigna, a spokesman for the California Democrats, defended the party’s endorsement process in the 4th district as “fair and transparent.” And he said that “Morse clearly reflects the consensus of the district and our statewide delegates.”
Vigna also noted that there’s no rule against local party officers (who are volunteers) from weighing in on a given race. “They don’t give up their first amendment rights just because of their party position,” Vigna said.
One thing Democrats seem to agree about when it comes to the 4th district: the same energy and intensity that has spawned infighting among local activists are also what’s fueling hope of an upset in November. Both Morse and Bateson outraised McClintock in the final three months of 2017, according to their fourth quarter fundraising reports.
“Tom McClintock is a target because of the work grassroots Democrats are doing in his district,” Vigna said. “That’s also why it’s so important for the Democrats there to stay united and stay focused on the big prize,” he said.
Bateson insists that’s her focus, as well. But while she once noted that the district’s local party clubs and central committees have “gotten to know (the candidates) better than most voters ever will,” she no longer has faith in their decision-making – or their ability to bring Democrats together.
“What we’ve heard over and over again is that the thing that would raise the most concerns for voters and local activists here would be the perception that party insiders here swooped in and told them what to do,” she explained.