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Capitol Journal: Will the next president come from California? Don’t count on it

The shadow campaign for Democratic presidential nomination is well underway
Sen. Kamala Harris, Tom Steyer, Rep. Eric Swalwell and Mayor Eric Garretti
(Los Angeles Times, Getty and Zuma Press )

Everyone should take a deep breath and accept reality: No Californian has much chance of being elected president.

It has less to do with the California Democrats who are warming up to run in 2020 — although they’re not earth shakers — than it does the state’s image outside our borders.

Face it, we’re seen as kooks, wackos and radical leftists in a state with crippling taxes, a shameful homeless problem and sky-high living costs — a place that invites illegal immigration by providing a sanctuary for border crashers.

Sure, much of that is bunkum — the wacko part, anyway. But there’s also more than a grain of truth.

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Our state taxes are among the nation’s highest. The homeless rate is the highest. One-quarter of the country’s immigrants who are here illegally live in California and are treated better by state and local governments than they are anywhere else.

Candidates from other states have a smorgasbord of negative ad fodder to run against “California values.”

“What we think is wonderful most of the country thinks is weird,” Democratic consultant David Townsend says. “America is not looking for a Californian to rescue us.”

Longtime Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, a fifth-generation Californian who publishes the nonpartisan Target Book that chronicles state legislative and congressional races, says:

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“Every Californian knows perfectly well that our friends and family members in the other 49 states hate us. They view us with contempt. We can argue that’s because they’re jealous, but the fact is you can’t be in Texas for more than an hour before somebody says, ‘Oh, you’re from the Left Coast.’ Or in Pennsylvania or New York… before they say, ‘Oh, you’re from La-La Land.’”

“The mark of a real Californian,” Sragow continues, “is that we don’t really care because it’s 75 degrees and sunny.”

More from George Skelton »

Not everyone agrees that California is a political pariah.

“I don’t think that’s true,” says Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic strategist who is director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. And in 2020, Shrum adds, whoever wins the Democratic nomination will be in a strong position to beat President Trump.

Veteran Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, who is advising Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in his early quest for the White House, dismisses the idea of a California burden.

“I don’t think any of those old rules apply,” he says. “There are too many ways to evaluate candidates now. People aren’t bogged down by stereotypes. They see the candidates in debates, on TV, in social media. My pet peeve is that ‘no mayor can get elected.’”

But no sitting mayor has ever been elected president. Nor has any California Democrat. None has even come close.

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Coverage of California politics »

Two Republicans have won the presidency — Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But both transcended California.

Nixon, a former California senator, had been vice president and was living in New York when he was elected.

Reagan was always a national figure, not just a former California governor. He had been a two-time presidential candidate, a beloved conservative icon and the cowboy hat-wearing host of TV’s popular “Death Valley Days.”

Reagan — if not Nixon — had a unique ability to relate personally to people and gain their trust. He was inspiring.

That talent hasn’t been demonstrated by the current crop of California Democratic wannabes, including U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, billionaire activist Tom Steyer, U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell of Dublin and Garcetti. None has officially announced, but most are expected to.

None has achieved a record in office to particularly crow about. And Steyer hasn’t even held office. Neither had Trump, but he already was a household name from reality TV and a populist crowd-pleaser.

How about a consolation prize of vice president? That would be foolish. This state will cast its 55 electoral votes for a Democrat no matter who’s on the ticket.

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If Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank were running, he might have a distant shot. The lead Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee has acquired a national following as a Trump antagonist who’s thoughtful, articulate and calm. But Schiff’s not tempted because he’ll soon become the committee chairman when Democrats regain the House majority.

Our returning to an early presidential primary on March 3 won’t help California candidates unless they’ve built momentum in the earlier states: Iowa and New Hampshire, especially, but also Nevada and South Carolina.

Generally, a candidate must win either in Iowa or New Hampshire — finish, at minimum, in the top three — to stay alive. If not, the money dries up and so does the voters’ interest.

“You have to get winnowed into the field,” Shrum says. “Otherwise, by the time you get to California, people are going to say, ‘This person is out of the running.’ Californians aren’t going to vote for someone from California if they think it’s a wasted vote.

“On the other hand, if a candidate can prove himself or herself in other states, then they’ll have an advantage in California.”

But I don’t see Americans electing a Californian. The state’s an albatross.

“To deny it is to ignore reality,” says veteran Democratic consultant Garry South. “Everyone wants to come here and go to Disneyland and Yosemite and Tahoe, but we’re the state everyone loves to hate.”

He adds: “There’s a sense that radical things start in California and move eastward.”

That’s true. And it’s mostly good. But it’s not always good presidential politics.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter


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