'I think the Valley matters' says governor candidate Antonio Villaraigosa on his return visit to Fresno
A farmers market in downtown Los Angeles. A political rally with Los Angeles Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez. A midnight meet-and-greet with West Hollywood Mayor John Duran.
Gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, the former Los Angeles mayor who has struggled to gain footing with voters, was on a last-ditch 24-hour campaign blitz on his home turf this week. His goal: to motivate Latinos to turn out and vote during next week's primary.
If he can capture enough Latino votes in Los Angeles, home to the largest share of that demographic in California, experts on statewide voting behavior say he could out-compete Republican John Cox in the race for second place. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is considered likely to place first.
"Certainly the numbers are there, both in terms of the size of the population and the proportion of Latino voters, and that's the part of the state where he would be the most well known, given his eight years as mayor and his time serving in the Legislature," said Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California.
Villaraigosa faces steep challenges. The key question is whether Latino voters will show up. Voter turnout has been the lowest in California in primaries in non-presidential years, largely because large numbers of young people and communities of color sit them out.
Participation in California's last such primary, in 2014, was a historic low, at about 25 percent of registered voters.
"Turnout in Los Angeles tends to lag behind other parts of the state, and turnout among Latinos is often disappointing," Baldassare said.
State Sen. Kevin de Leoñ, D-Los Angeles, is also seeking to boost Latino turnout in hopes of gaining momentum in his campaign against U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, though she is the preferred candidate among Latinos, according to recent polling.
Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant and senior adviser to Villaraigosa, said courting the Latino vote has been the campaign's underlying strategy all along.
"The critical vote is the going to be the Latino vote. This is what we've been planning for two years and have been executing on," Madrid said, explaining their focus on Los Angeles. "It's the same reason Newsom's there. He's trying to make sure that the Democratic base is split so Antonio doesn't go through."
Villaraigosa has one thing working in his favor.
The latest poll from the Public Policy Institute of California shows he is already the preferred candidate of likely Latino voters, with 39 percent favoring him compared to 15 percent for Newsom.
Madrid also argued that dislike of President Donald Trump in California – 63 percent of likely voters disapprove of his job performance – could drive Latinos to the polls, fueling higher-than-average turnout in a gubernatorial primary.
He noted higher than expected black and Latino participation in state and national races across the country that have helped flip Republican seats to Democratic-held offices, a reflection of how race and ethnicity can influence election results.
The Virginia governor's race last year, for example, went for Democrat Ralph Northam over Republican incumbent Ed Gillespie. Latino turnout was up over 6 points in the election, according to an analysis by the Virginia Public Access Project.
A special election in Alabama produced a victory for Democrat Doug Jones over Republican Roy Moore, and Stacey Abrams won the gubernatorial primary in Georgia this month. High African American turnout is credited with shaping the results in both races.
It's unclear whether Villaraigosa's strategy will work. Former Rep. Loretta Sanchez failed in her 2016 campaign against U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris after she sought the Latino vote by touting her Mexican American heritage. Villaraigosa has trailed Cox in most polls this year, and primary contests in gubernatorial election years tend to be weighted more heavily toward white, conservative and older voters.
But Madrid says Villaraigosa's entire message has been about elevating issues that, across the spectrum of age and political ideology, are central to Latino communities, chief among them jobs and the economy. He believes that recent polling has underestimated potential Latino participation because, he argued, it hasn't captured enthusiasm among Latinos motivated to show up and vote against Trump.
"We're already seeing a very strong showing among Latinos," Madrid said. "The question for us come Tuesday will be how strong."