CALIFORNIA POLITICS

Winning the party endorsement is 'like trying to win an Iowa caucus' ... but in California

Ray Bishop may just be a business consultant from Tarzana, but over the past few weeks California’s Democratic Senate candidates have lavished him with the attention usually reserved for a high-rolling Silicon Valley billionaires and deified political heavyweights.

Bishop is among the more than 3,200 delegates in the California Democratic Party who this weekend will decide if the party should endorse state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris or Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Orange County for U.S. Senate, a vote expected to weigh heavily on the outcome of the June 7 primary.

Harris invited Bishop to introduce her at a rally in the San Fernando Valley on Wednesday night. And, like most delegates, he’s been inundated with calls, emails and letters from the Harris and Sanchez campaigns trolling for his vote.

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“It’s really a good thing because they’re reaching out to people who are activists, as opposed to big money people and political leaders,” Bishop said. “We usually don’t get this much attention.”

The high-stakes political battle over the Senate endorsement will play out during the state Democratic Party’s three-day political convention in San Jose, a festive strategy session and pep rally that will feature an address by Vice President Joe Biden on Saturday and a last hurrah for retiring, four-term Sen. Barbara Boxer.

The partisan confab comes at a time when Democrats' grip on California has ratcheted even tighter, with a new report by the Secretary of State showing Democrats now have a 15-point advantage over Republicans in voter registration. Democrats already lay claim to every statewide political office and hold solid majorities in both Legislative chambers.

Democrats also have held both of California’s U.S. Senate seats since 1992, and, with Harris and Sanchez far outdistancing their two main GOP rivals in both opinion polls and fundraising, the odds of that changing appear slim.

Having a coveted Senate seat within reach has only intensified the competition between the candidates to land the party endorsement, a seal of approval that would send a clear signal to California Democrats who haven’t been paying much attention to the Senate race. The spoils may also include financial support from the state party.

“For endorsements to be meaningful, you raise money, you contribute money. You let Democrats know,” said state Democratic Party Chairman John Burton, also a delegate.

Harris goes into the convention as the clear frontrunner in the Senate race and, according to many party activists and delegates, the only candidate within reach of landing the party’s endorsement. If the party decides against endorsing, that would be a clean political victory for Sanchez.

As delegates walk to the ballot box to cast their endorsement votes on Saturday, they should expect to “run a gantlet” of Harris and Sanchez supporters handing out buttons, fliers and engaging in some last-minute arm-twisting to win them over, said Eric Bauman, chairman of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party.

“Both candidates and their supporters really understand how much this means,” Bauman said. “It’s one of the most exciting endorsement fights that I’ve seen in a long time.”

This comes after weeks, if not months, of personal lobbying from the candidates as they have traveled up and down California huddling with delegates everywhere from San Diego to the northern reaches of the Central Valley.

“It is the most retail campaigning you’ll see in California, because there are just a couple thousand delegates,” said former Democratic Assembly Speaker John Pérez of Los Angeles. “It’s more like trying to win an Iowa caucus than a California primary.”

Pérez fell just short of winning the party’s endorsement in his 2014 race for state Controller when he was up against fellow Democrat Betty Yee, and later failed to make it past the primary. Yee was victorious in the general election.

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To win the party endorsement, Harris or Sanchez must receive at least 60% of the votes from credentialed delegates or their proxies when ballots are cast on Saturday afternoon. Historically, that mark has been difficult to reach because delegates also have the option of checking a box for “no endorsement.”

In 2014, there were no party endorsements in the races for controller and secretary of state. Beforehand, Burton told party members that he personally was going to vote for “no endorsement” for those races.

Burton said he is “not a big fan” of handing out endorsements in races with two or more prominent Democratic candidates, for fear it could divide the party and lead to lingering animosity. But he did not send out any plea to party members regarding this year’s Senate endorsement fight.

Delegates and party officials say the endorsement campaigns have been relatively civil but not immune from bouts of sniping and slippery politics.

In the Sacramento area, a Sanchez supporter calling delegates criticized Harris for failing to investigate controversial police shootings and, she said, being beholden, politically, to powerful police unions.

Braddon Mendelson, a delegate from Stevenson Ranch, said he received several calls from the Harris campaign. When he explained he was going to miss the convention, he got an interesting offer.

“They asked if I would like them to find a proxy for me,” Mendelson said, laughing.

Mendelson, a filmmaker and writer, declined, saying he'd already found a good stand-in.

Christine Pelosi of San Francisco, chair of the party’s powerful Women’s Caucus and daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, said she’d heard that some Harris supporters have been saying “disparaging things” about Sanchez in the run up to the convention.

That could backfire with undecided delegates if they feel like the congresswoman is not getting the respect she deserves, said Christine Pelosi, who is remaining neutral.

At the party's convention in Anaheim in May, Sanchez had to apologize after making a stereotypical Native American “war cry” gesture that disrupted the opening phase of her campaign, a gaffe that no one has forgotten.

“They should be careful about minimizing someone,” Pelosi said. “There are people who underestimate Loretta. That is a mistake.”

Pelosi estimates that Harris probably has support among more than 50% of delegates, which would lead to some feverish, last-minute campaigning at the convention.

Pelosi, a political consultant, also knows that party endorsements are no guarantee of success. In 1990, she helped former Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp win the state Democratic Party endorsement for governor, beating out Dianne Feinstein, formerly mayor of San Francisco. Feinstein went on to win the Democratic Primary, only to lose in the general election to Republican Pete Wilson.

California’s top-two primary system also may warp the value of landing the party endorsement. The two candidates who receive the most votes in June, regardless of party, face off on Nov. 7. If Harris and Sanchez both advance, the Democratic Party’s endorsement might not be as well received among Republicans and some independent voters.

Democratic political consultant Michael Wagaman said Harris, who served as San Francisco’s district attorney before being elected statewide, might have a minuscule geographic advantage over Sanchez this weekend because this year’s convention is being held in Northern California, within driving distance of Harris’ major base of political support.

But he expects almost all Southern California delegates to make the northern trek. Most look forward to these conventions all year. Plus, the vice president is dropping by, he said.

“What is so unique about the process is that it’s approximately 3,000 people all together in one space for three days, most of whom have known each other for 20 or 30 years,” said Wagaman, who heads the party committee that credentials delegates. “So it’s like having an election in your family.”

phil.willon@latimes.com

Follow @philwillon on Twitter for the latest news on California politics

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