Democratic presidential candidates are making their way to California. A dozen of them have visited the state a combined 38 times, and there is no shortage of trips on the horizon.
But in their efforts to woo voters from the most populous state in the country, Democrats have largely ignored the Central Valley — a region with 6.5 million people and five large cities.
A Sacramento Bee analysis shows none of the 16 declared candidates have held a rally in the valley. Instead, they’ve flocked to wealthier, urban communities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. California Sen. Kamala Harris became the first viable candidate to visit the region when she held a fundraiser in Sacramento Monday night.
While it’s early in the 2020 election cycle and candidates need to find places with plenty of big-dollar donors, lawmakers, political experts and local activists warn it would be a mistake to continue dismissing the Central Valley.
Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the California Democratic Party, said “ignoring emerging voters is something that campaigns do at their own peril.”
“There are segments of the state that may have once seemed like they were places you could pass up, but you can’t,” he added. “Smart campaigns are going to have to campaign in a way that divides up the state into mini-states that they can target and reach out to.”
Presidential candidates for years have relied on California donors to fund their campaigns, but the state’s often-late primary made campaigning in other states much more important. This year the primary has moved from June to March 3, and mail voting starts on Feb. 3 – the same day as the Iowa caucuses.
Now that the state is in play, politicians and local activists are noticing that the Democratic presidential hopefuls aren’t engaging in the Central Valley.
With more than 500,000 residents, Fresno is the 34th largest city in the United States. Modesto’s population of 215,000 mirrors that of Des Moines, Iowa — a popular campaign stop given that Iowa hosts the first presidential primary.
Josh Harder, a freshman Democratic congressman whose district includes Modesto, invites any candidate to visit his community and discuss key issues.
“California is way more than just San Francisco and LA,” Harder said in a statement. “I’m offering an open invitation to any presidential candidate who would like to come learn about not just on one of the most beautiful places in our country, but about a community of hard working families. Any candidate hoping for a shot at winning in the Central Valley needs to focus on the issues that real people care about – making healthcare more accessible and affordable, creating more good paying jobs, and making meaningful investments into our infrastructure.”
Michael Evans, chairman of the Fresno County Democratic Party, said he’s reached out to campaigns only to be met with requests for donations.
“Historically, when Democrats have come to the area, they’ve just treated us as an ATM,” Evans said. “We hoped moving the Democratic primary up to March, that there’d be more attention to the Central Valley and to our needs. That hasn’t seemed to happen yet. ... With 20 Democrats running, we ought to get one of them.”
Thus far, former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro is the only candidate to accept Evans’ invitation for a visit. But Castro is not scheduled to hold a rally. Instead, he’ll speak to donors at the party’s annual fundraiser on May 3.
In the lead-up to California’s June 2016 primary, the three remaining candidates from both parties visited Fresno. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders held a rally, as did former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-candidate Donald Trump.
Evans said access to affordable and safe drinking water is the major issue Democratic candidates should focus on if they visit rural communities within the Central Valley. Fred Vanderhoof, who leads Fresno County’s Republican Party, added jobs, crime and immigration to the list of concerns on voters’ minds.
Lesser-known presidential candidates could get a boost both politically and through small-dollar donations if they visit the area, said Steve Maviglio, a Democratic political consultant in Sacramento.
California does not host a winner-take-all primary. Instead, delegates are divided by congressional district, which creates an opportunity for underdogs to gain some ground.
“Voters reward being able to see presidential candidates,” Maviglio said. “It makes sense to split up your time to where the votes are. At the end of the day, it’s all about getting delegates.”
Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg is serving his eighth and final year as mayor of South Bend, Indiana. The 37-year-old visited San Francisco last week and spoke to The Bee before the event. He said he plans to campaign throughout California and thinks he’ll resonate with Central Valley voters.
“Frankly, it’s the more inland and redder parts of the state that I might have an easier time relating to, coming out of Indiana,” Buttigieg said.
If prominent candidates like Sanders and Harris continue to focus on coastal cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, the middle of the state could become open season. Harris was unavailable for an interview during her visit to Sacramento on Monday, but a campaign spokeswoman said Harris met with stakeholders in the Central Valley as a senator and is committed to speaking with all kinds of California voters.
“At the very start of this campaign, Senator Harris has already shown a clear commitment to earning every vote she can in her home state of California,” said a statement from spokeswoman Kate Waters. “As California’s United States senator, she has demonstrated a boots-on-the-ground approach to communities across the state. ... She fully intends to continue that approach in her presidential campaign.”