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Newsletter: Should California move its primary again?

Essential Politics
(Los Angeles Times)

For 48 years, beginning in 1946 and lasting through 1994, the timing of California’s biennial primary was entirely predictable, always popping up on the first Tuesday in June. But that’s when the state’s political leaders, desperate for some love from the candidates for president, started tinkering. The latest iteration was just last week, making California the biggest prize in the Super Tuesday presidential sweepstakes.

All well and good, says state Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana), but let’s go back to June for the primary in 2022.

“In a non-presidential year, we have no ability to influence national politics,” Umberg said. “So we might as we do it in June.”

And so the Orange County Democrat plans to introduce a compromise this week at the state Capitol: March primaries in the years in which a president is elected, June primaries in the years in which the governor and other statewide officials are chosen.

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While Umberg wouldn’t touch the rules that led to the March 3 primary this year, he doesn’t sound particularly convinced that California had the role it sought in this year’s race.

“Did we have presidential candidates pay attention to us? Yes,” he said. “California was influential. But not determinative.”

In fact, most of the reasons the Democratic lawmaker cites for moving the off-cycle primary back to June — including the perpetual campaign for those in two-year positions and increased costs for legislative and congressional races that must maintain full speed between March and November — would be just as true in 2024 as 2022.

So why not reconsider the chase of presidential relevance? “My colleagues who fancy California as being determinative, they’re not going to want to move it,” Umberg said.

Takeaways from the California primary

So far, counties have reported about 3.2 million unprocessed ballots cast in last week’s primary. That number will probably grow in the next few days as the ballots that showed up in the mail on Friday with an election day postmark are included. If the numbers don’t grow pretty substantially, it’s likely that California’s voter turnout could end up near or below the 50% mark — lower than the rosy expectations of those who strongly backed moving the primary to March. (Sen. Umberg, call your office.)

The recent record for a presidential primary was the 57.7% turnout in 2008, when the state held a special standalone election in which Hillary Clinton and Sen. John McCain came out on top in their respective party’s contests.

While we wait for the updated numbers, a few other thoughts to consider on the California primary:

  • Freshmen struggle in early returns: The final numbers may look better, but the first reelection effort was hardly a blowout for some of the California Democrats who won House seats in 2018 that had long been held by Republicans. Four freshmen — Reps. Josh Harder, T.J. Cox, Gil Cisneros and Harley Rouda — failed to win a majority of votes cast in their districts. Harder and Cox, both hailing from the Central Valley, fared the worst. And Cox looks to be in the worst position of all; he handily trails the man he beat in 2018, former Rep. David Valadao. Incumbency may generally be the best predictor of congressional races, but Democrats might have to spend handily to hold these seats come November.
  • Big outside money on legislative races: The “top two” era of legislative races has brought an enormous amount of money into races for the California state Senate and Assembly. With pretty low limits on donations to the candidates, the big bucks are spent using independent expenditure committees. The latest estimate, compiled by the nonpartisan California Target Book, puts total independent expenditures for legislative primaries at about $19 million. The top race for spending was in L.A., where Lisa Calderon and Sylvia Rubio led a long list of Democrats in a safe seat. Oil and gas companies, which regularly back Democrats who they think will be more business-minded, funded a large independent effort to elect Rubio, the sister of Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio and Sen. Susan Rubio. But returns currently favor Calderon, whose stepson Assemblyman Ian Calderon decided to not run again for the seat once held by his father, former Assemblyman Charles Calderon.

Another big test for Newsom

For the third time in his short time in office, Gov. Gavin Newsom confronts a crisis of either dire human or economic proportions. His far-reaching agenda took a backseat this weekend to California’s response to the coronavirus crisis, much as it did when Newsom confronted devastating wildfires and the bankruptcy of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in 2019.

As the governor outlined plans on Sunday to move California passengers off the cruise ship that spent days off the San Francisco coast, he took aim at the ship’s owners — criticism that echoed his sharp rebuke of PG&E and other utilities during wildfire season.

“We simply, as a state, cannot experience this kind of operation at the scale that is likely,” if cruise ships don’t take more precautions, Newsom said.

Look, too, for demands that the governor’s administration do more to help county health officials should they become overwhelmed by being on the front lines of the government response.

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Campaign 2020: Michigan is a must-watch

Tuesday’s Democratic primary in six states will be the first real test of the race’s new, binary status: a choice between former Vice President Joe Biden or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

But the focus seems to be on Michigan, where there’s a sense that Sanders has a lot on the line in trying to stop the Super Tuesday momentum of Biden.

Meanwhile, Biden picked up the endorsement of onetime rival California Sen. Kamala Harris — a moment that feels as if it has come a political lifetime since Harris’ big summertime debate moment when she chastised Biden on school integration. Sen. Cory Booker also announced an endorsement of Biden early Monday.

But the biggest boost for Biden is money. He’s again found himself in the good graces of campaign donors.

Today’s essentials

— Learning the final outcome in a California election can take weeks, but the reason for that delay — laws that offer more time and methods to vote — outweighs the frustration, according to a new statewide poll.

— Newsom and his wife, documentary filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, reported an income of $1.2 million in 2018, including $800,000 from the governor’s wineries, restaurants, hotels and other hospitality businesses.

— California regulators ordered Allenco Energy to plug wells and decommission a South L.A. oil drilling site whose neighbors once complained of nosebleeds, headaches and other ailments.

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