First Thoughts on the California Democratic Party Convention

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California, and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist

  • When Democrats met last weekend in San Diego for their state convention there was a buzz that hasn’t been present at recent State GOP conclaves or many past Democratic gatherings. The intensity dividend that has worked for Democrats in special elections and state contests in Virginia, New Jersey and even Alabama, appears to be building in the Golden State. Donald Trump is the gift that keeps on giving to California Democrats. It is opposition to the President that unifies Democratic activists, even as they are divided in their support for candidates and, to a lesser extent, on issues.
  • Senator Dianne Feinstein got through the weekend without severe damage, even though she drew less delegate support than her challenger—State Senator Kevin de León. Neither candidate reached the 60 % threshold to win their party’s endorsement. But this race, perhaps more than any other, highlights the stark divisions within the Democratic Party between its “Progressive” and “Establishment” wings.

This was a convention that Senator Feinstein had to endure, but it should have no real impact on her clash with de León in June and, most likely, in November. Yes, the endorsement could have meant a needed infusion of money for the cash-strapped de León, but certainly not enough to fill the chasm of contributions that now exists. In 1990, Democratic State Convention delegates booed Feinstein when she supported the death penalty and gave the party’s gubernatorial endorsement to then-Attorney General John Van de Kamp. She went on to beat Van de Kamp in the June (closed) Primary, losing narrowly to Republican Pete Wilson in the general election.

  • The largest gap within the Democratic Party is clearly generational. There were a lot of enthusiastic young activists at this year’s convention—the median age of participants (not unlike at the recent GOP conclave) appears to have ratcheted down. Although this year’s session was a bit less contentious than last year’s go-round, Berniecrats are still very much in evidence and are continuing to make themselves heard.
  • Big public employee unions—particularly the California Nurses Association, the California Teachers Association and SEIU—remain dominant factors at Democratic State conventions. Support for the contentious issue of single-payer health care, pushed by the nurses and other unions, made it into the party platform without a squabble.
  • Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom scored a plurality in the balloting for the party’s gubernatorial endorsement with 39% of the delegates’ vote, but fell far short of the 60% needed to capture the party’s nod. This was not an impressive showing for Newsom, who gave an effective convention speech and has the backing of the nurses, the CTA and several key unions and politicians. State Treasurer John Chiang and former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin outperformed their standing in recent public polls, gathering 30% and 20% of the delegate votes respectively. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose fights with public employee unions have garnered him the enmity of much of organized labor, showed up in San Diego but got only 9% of the delegate vote. This was clearly not his crowd.
  • A veteran Democratic convention goer noted that activists tend to reward politicos who regularly show up and press the flesh at Democratic meetings and conventions. Newsom and Chiang are party regulars, as is Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones who got a plurality over recently appointed Attorney General Xavier Becerra in the contest for the party’s nod in the AG race; however, Jones did fall short of the 60% endorsement threshold.
  • Unlike the State GOP, California Democrats have an embarrassment of riches in terms of candidates–maybe too many in some key Congressional races that are vital to the party’s chances to recapture control of the U.S. House. With California’s open, top two primary, a handful of Democratic candidates can split the primary vote finely enough that a couple of Republicans could qualify for the November general election. It’s happened before.

And there is real concern that the exit of GOP incumbent Congressman Darrell Issa from the 49th CD race makes flipping that seat from Republican to Democrat that much harder, with 5 Dems.—none of whom could snag the party’s endorsement–facing off against at least one credible GOP candidate in June. In the short time before the March 9th filing deadline, expect to see efforts by Democratic honchos in Washington and California to twist arms and try to persuade some candidates to forgo these overloaded contests, so that only one or two top-tier Democrats are competing in the primary. How successful these efforts will be remains to be seen. Candidate fever is hard to break.

  • No tea leaves should be read in projecting delegate voting onto the June Primary, where the electorate is very different—larger and even more ideologically disparate. Senator Dianne Feinstein is still well positioned to turn away the de León challenge and Newsom and Villaraigosa are still the favorites to square off for Governor in November.


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