In an effort to avoid infighting among California Democrats, the state party chairman is asking Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her rival, state Senate leader Kevin de León, and the candidates running for governor not to seek an endorsement at the party’s spring convention.
“I believe it is essential that our statewide candidates conduct their campaigns in a positive manner that does not damage other Democrats and weaken our Party,” chairman Eric Bauman wrote in a letter to those major candidates and everyone seeking statewide office.
Bauman, who became chairman this year in a disputed contest himself, argued that time and money spent on an endorsement campaign would be better devoted to reaching out to voters.
“The CDP State Convention is a time when we need Democrats to come together with the goal of electing a Democrat to every seat possible in November,” he wrote.
So far, the candidates aren’t agreeing. There are two premier statewide contests next year – the competitive gubernatorial race to replace termed-out Gov. Jerry Brown, and Feinstein’s reelection bid, where she faces a challenge by De León, who suggests she hasn’t been liberal enough in challenging President Trump.
There also are down-ballot races where winning the state party imprimatur and the accompanying resources such as mailers and field staff could have a notable impact in contests where fewer voters know the candidates and the races receive little media attention, notably the lieutenant governor and attorney general contests. For voters without much information, a mailer featuring the Democratic endorsement could be all the persuasion needed to select that candidate.
A study of California Democratic party endorsements in the 2012 election by researchers from UC San Diego, the University of Denver and the Public Policy Institute of California found an endorsement could buoy a candidate’s support by seven to 15 points.
“What this study does show is that those who receive this one endorsement get a substantial advantage in the primary election, and this is an endorsement worth fighting for,” the researchers wrote in 2015. “This study also shows that parties are more than just cheerleaders for particular candidates; they can make them or break them.”
A 60% vote among delegates at the state party convention in February in San Diego is required to secure an endorsement. Campaigns to court roughly 3,400 state party delegates and win the nod — or block a rival from getting it — can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
The last major endorsement battle at convention was between then-Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris and then-Rep. Loretta Sanchez in the race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2016. Harris crushed the race, winning 78.1% of the vote. It was a lucrative investment for her campaign, and the state party spent at least $690,000 backing her in the contest she would go on to win 62%-38% over Sanchez.
In San Diego, the most visible efforts will include swanky cocktail parties, possibly featuring celebrities. Swag — from themed hotel key cards to convention lanyards to campaign signs papering the meeting spaces — will be omnipresent. Campaigns may even pay for delegates’ registration and travel costs.
Gubernatorial candidates Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Treasurer John Chiang have been aggressively courting delegates. Delaine Eastin, another candidate for governor, and Xavier Becerra, the state’s appointed attorney general who is seeking election to the post, have been holding phone banks where supporters call delegates urging their support. Dave Jones, also a candidate for attorney general, has personally called hundreds. Feinstein sent delegates a mailer and personally greeted them at a small party meeting earlier this year in the Bay Area.
Bauman’s request has no teeth — state party bylaws allow an endorsement race to occur if a candidate files for it, the state party would have to change its bylaws to block candidates from seeking an endorsement, and there isn’t enough time to enact such a rule change before the convention. Bauman said in an interview he is skeptical any candidate will agree to forgo party backing.
“I don’t expect anyone to stand down,” he said. “These are all competitors.”
Still, he said he was hoping to defuse the tensions that accompany primary fights. The idea, he said, is to carry on a tradition that began under the last party chairman, John Burton.
There are significant differences: There were fewer notable competitive statewide contests during Burton’s tenure, and the former legislative leader had greater standing among state party delegates.
Additionally, Bauman was elected in a bitterly divisive race earlier this year, with nearly half of the delegates supporting his rival. The convention when he won the role was the most fractured in recent memory, with delegates heckling state and national Democratic leaders.
Several campaigns said they had no plans to heed Bauman’s request.
“Every voter deserves a voice, particularly the committed grass-roots members of the party, so we’ll keep asking every voter including every delegate to support the campaign,” said Dan Newman, a spokesman for Newsom.