SAN FRANCISCO — As they made their way into a breakfast for union members meeting ahead of the California Democratic Party’s annual convention here on Saturday, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE (I-Vt.) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) braved a boisterous phalanx of supporters backing their hometown hero, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisRand Paul introduces bill to end no-knock warrants The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook McEnany says Juneteenth is a very ‘meaningful’ day to Trump MORE (D-Calif.).
“Whose house?” one Harris backer yelled. The rest shouted back: “Kamala’s!”
Public polls, and the receptions that several other candidates earned before delegates meeting at the Moscone Center, show Harris has work to do to win her home state, the largest prize up for grabs on Super Tuesday.
California has been both a boon and a burden to Harris, who won her Senate seat in 2016. It is the most populous state in the nation, the home of big donors who have funded Harris’s campaign and hundreds of volunteers who can operate the phone banks. But its size and diversity, both geographic and demographic, makes it harder to compete here than in any other state in the country.
No Democrat has ever won the party’s nomination without carrying their own state in the primary process. That puts the pressure on candidates like Sens. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetSome realistic solutions for income inequality Democratic senators kneel during moment of silence for George Floyd 21 senators urge Pentagon against military use to curb nationwide protests MORE (D-Colo.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (D-Mass.), Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Democrats demand Republican leaders examine election challenges after Georgia voting chaos Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk MORE (D-Minn.) and Sanders, as well as O’Rourke, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro (D) and former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperGun control group rolls out first round of Senate endorsements The Hill’s Campaign Report: Republicans go on attack over calls to ‘defund the police’ Hickenlooper ethics questions open him up to attack MORE (D), all of whom will see their home states vote on Super Tuesday.
But none will face stakes as high as those confronting Harris, because carrying California is such a massive and expensive undertaking.
“The great thing about California Democrats and California voters is they make decisions based on issues. They make decisions based on the connection to the relevancy of what you’re talking about and their lives,” Harris told reporters on Saturday. “I am here to earn everyone’s support and I am going to fight to earn it.”
She has earned a mammoth amount of institutional support. Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomCoachella, Stagecoach canceled for 2020 Here’s where your state stands on mail-in voting Urgency mounts for a contact tracing army MORE (D), four statewide officeholders and huge majorities of both the Senate and Assembly Democratic caucuses back Harris. The only notable defectors include Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Democrats demand Republican leaders examine election challenges after Georgia voting chaos GOP votes to give Graham broad subpoena power in Obama-era probe MORE (D), who supports former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE, and state Sen. Henry Stern (D), who backs South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegScaled-back Pride Month poses challenges for fundraising, outreach Biden hopes to pick VP by Aug. 1 It’s as if a Trump operative infiltrated the Democratic primary process MORE.
In a state that is notoriously hard to organize, support from local elected officials matters: They serve as on-the-ground mini-organizations that can activate volunteers and chase voters in the weeks leading up to the primary.
“Californians love Kamala Harris,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla (D) said in an interview. “Her wins as attorney general statewide and her win as a U.S. senator were more than impressive. That’s going to count for a lot.”
Harris is already building her team in the state. The California contingent is being guided by Courtni Pugh, a veteran operative plugged into the essential world of union politics who worked for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE’s presidential campaign in 2016, when she won California’s primary.
Harris’s consulting team is a California-heavy group led by Ace Smith, Sean Clegg, Laphonza Butler and campaign manager Juan Rodriguez, veterans of the state’s complicated politics and the races that propelled Harris to where she is today. They say the state is not a must-win for any candidate in the field, though Harris insiders acknowledge California is a top priority.
“We have an operation that is chock-full of people who were working on those races,” said one top Harris adviser. “We’re the furthest ahead in our California play in terms of the actual operational mechanics and maneuvering.”
But Harris has work to do among California voters. An April poll conducted by Quinnipiac University shows Biden leading the field in California at 26 percent of the vote. Sanders took 18 percent, virtually tied with Harris’s 17 percent.
Warren, who won the loudest applause at this weekend’s convention and who drew 6,000 supporters to a rally in Oakland, and Buttigieg finished tied for fourth at 7 percent of the vote each.
In interviews with a dozen party strategists, operatives and elected officials here, many said Harris must win California’s March 3 primary if she has any chance of winning the nomination.
“Not only does she have to win in California to get the nomination, she has to win so the long list of politicos here who have endorsed her early don’t have egg on their faces with the voters in California,” said Anthony Reyes, a former top aide to state Senate President Kevin de León. “If they can’t pull this off here it will speak volumes on what direction California voters — a formidable contingent of the Democratic base — want to go in if they end up defying the state’s political establishment.”
California is the largest of 16 prizes available on Super Tuesday, when eight Southern states, two New England states and a smattering of others cast their votes, including American Samoa and Democrats Abroad.
And, in a sense, California is a microcosm of all the other states that will vote that day. It has huge constituencies of African American voters, like Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina. It has Hispanic communities in Los Angeles and the Central Valley as significant to a Democratic primary as Texas’s. It has rural white voters in the north and east, like Minnesota and Vermont, and a core of white liberals in Bay Area cities who resemble the voters who make Massachusetts and Virginia blue and blueish.
It is California’s very size that makes Harris’s challenge all the more complex.
“In a smaller state, she would have a higher profile. Here, she has to compete with car chases and Kardashians,” said John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “Senators can seldom dominate state politics as governors can.”
Other contenders have shown no deference in Harris’s home state. More than a dozen showed up to address the state convention this weekend.
Democratic rules allow candidates to receive delegates to the national convention by winning, or at least reaching 15 percent of the vote, in individual congressional districts. That requires candidates trying to win the state as a whole to spend heavily on some of the most expensive media markets in the country, and it allows others to go delegate-hunting in more specific areas.
Buttigieg left the convention for a campaign swing through the Central Valley. Sanders held a rally in Pasadena before heading to the convention. Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeInslee calls on Trump to ‘stay out of Washington state’s business’ Seattle mayor responds to Trump: ‘Go back to your bunker’ Trump warns he will take back Seattle from ‘ugly Anarchists’ if local leaders don’t act MORE (D) held fundraising events in the state, and Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockKoch-backed group launches ad campaign to support four vulnerable GOP senators Overnight Energy: US Park Police say ‘tear gas’ statements were ‘mistake’ | Trump to reopen area off New England coast for fishing | Vulnerable Republicans embrace green issues Vulnerable Republicans embrace green issues in battle to save seats MORE (D) will hold his own events there later this week.
Harris’s team acknowledges the challenge ahead, one that will fuse long-term planning with fortuitous short-term timing. Strong performances in early state contests in Iowa and New Hampshire will build energy she — or any candidate — needs to carry into Super Tuesday.
“You’re going to have to have a lot of money, you’re going to have to be polling well, and you’re going to have to be in the news” to win California, the Harris insider said. “We need to be strong and run very competitively in those first few states and go into Super Tuesday with momentum.”
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