The plan was simple. Democratic Party officials would huddle Saturday and pick their favorite local candidates for official party endorsement before voters cast their ballots in the June primary.
The hope was to avoid messy primary battles by steering money and endorsements to one candidate who could focus on beating the Republican opponent in the November general election.
But party officials failed to muster the support needed to endorse any of the legislative and congressional candidates in contested primary races.
The snag at the party's first Regional Pre-primary Endorsement Conference was that any candidate had to win 70% of the votes of party officials to get the official endorsement. And some delegates, most of them members of Democratic central committees and clubs, voted against awarding any endorsements before all Democratic voters had their say June 7.
"We had some very strong candidates in some very competitive races and 70% of the vote is a large threshold to obtain," said Terry Leftgoff, regional director of the Democratic Party. "I think it speaks to the quality of our candidates."
Leftgoff presided over Saturday's caucus in Santa Barbara, attended by about 150 delegates and party members representing Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.
Some candidates at the caucus said they were uncomfortable with the pre-primary endorsement process because it discourages competition while maximizing the influence of party leaders on primary elections.
"I would prefer not to have this process, and I would recommend that to our party chairman," said Mindy Lorenz of Santa Barbara, a candidate for a state Assembly seat representing portions of Ventura County. "I think we should let the voters decide (who they want to represent the party). That's what primaries are for."
But Leftgoff said voters will still have their say at the polls in June, that the early endorsements are just another way to help voters measure the strength of a candidate's support.
"The more we can focus on the general election, the more it helps the party and candidates themselves," Leftgoff said. "It provides them with the backbone for exposure before the party faithful. These are our hard-core volunteers who the candidates need support from to run effective races against candidates who are better funded."
In the balloting Saturday, Lorenz, a former Green Party congressional candidate, collected 13 votes, while opponent Bob Ream, a former aide to state Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), garnered 29 votes. Five delegates voted for no endorsement.
The two candidates are competing for the 35th Assembly District seat being vacated by Democrat Jack O'Connell, who is running for Hart's seat. The district includes Ventura, Santa Paula, Ojai and most of Santa Barbara County.
Although neither candidate captured the party's endorsement, each said they were pleased with their showing of support.
"It was not particularly close," Ream said. "So I feel good about that. It was a strong showing for me."
Said Lorenz: "It's a victory for me because Bob didn't get the endorsement. I think it's testament to the support that I've been able to build within the party. I think I did terrific."
Asked if her former Green Party affiliation might have hurt her in the voting, Lorenz said it's "clear I still have a lot of rows to hoe."
The two candidates competing in the Democratic primary for the 23rd Congressional District seat now held by Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) also left empty-handed. The district covers all of Ventura County, except most of Thousand Oaks.
Candidate Frank Stephenson, a college placement consultant from Ojai, failed to collect any votes, while opponent Kevin Ready, an attorney for Santa Barbara County, picked up eight. Another eight delegates cast their votes for no endorsement.
Stephenson, a former member of the Green Party, said he believed it was too early in the campaign season and that many delegates are still unfamiliar with the candidates. He said he also had reservations about the pre-primary endorsements.
Ready said he believed some delegates cast votes for no endorsements simply because they don't believe the party should be giving early endorsements to candidates.
"I know for a fact of at least four people who voted for no endorsements are supporting my candidacy, but they don't support this process," Ream said.
Ream said he believes that once people are more comfortable with the process that it can be effective, particularly in congressional races, where an early endorsement can give a candidate a big boost in terms of organizational and financial support.
The delegates managed to muster the votes for candidates running for legislative seats who are unopposed in the Democratic primary. They include O'Connell and Dorothy Maron, who hopes to unseat Assemblyman Nao Takasugi (R-Oxnard) in the 37th Assembly District that stretches from Oxnard to Thousand Oaks.