Will the California Primary Matter?

There's been a lot of chatter that the California primary may at last matter in the presidential race. Sorry to say that this dyed-in-the-wool California enthusiast doesn't think so. Not in terms of calling the turn on either party's nomination, that is. In each party, the likely nominee is clear; in one case, all too clear. In other ways, sure, it will matter. Some.

For the smashing wins by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in New York and a string of northern and Atlantic state primaries have all but ended the nomination contests in both parties. And Trump seems poised to blow out Texas Senator Ted Cruz Tuesday night in Indiana, making it even more likely that the Republican establishment will continue on its slide to acceding to the increasingly inevitable.

Yet the California primary will matter to a certain extent. For one thing, because the arrival of the presidential campaign circus will enliven an otherwise dull primary season in the Golden State. For another, because it may provide dramatically satisfying events for the anti-establishment candidates of the season, Trump and Bernie Sanders. More about that in a moment.

The big initiative fights will be this fall. The race to replace retiring U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer has been a real snorer. For all the complaints about Boxer and Dianne Feinstein having a hammerlock on the state's two Senate seats since 1992, supposedly suppressing a new generation or three of top-level leadership, Boxer's retirement set off what can only be described as a wet firecracker of a political reaction.

Protesters nearly blocked Donald Trump from addressing the California Republican Party convention over the weekend.

It turned out that there was remarkably little in the way of passion and imagination in California Democratic circles being suppressed by the long tenures of Boxer and Feinstein, for what ensued in the wake of Boxer's announcement was a fairly obvious, tedious, and undramatic exercise in rather mild political gamesmanship. In this, state Attorney General Kamala Harris, whom I and many others had assumed wanted to be governor, emerged instead as a very cautious semi-consensus establishment choice in a process having little to do with ideas and mission and much more to do with constituencies and positioning.

The Senate seat was there for the taking for Governor Jerry Brown, a natural-born senator if there ever was one, but he had his hands full running California. He demurred, this time, as did all other statewide Democratic names (some, like Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, because they want to be governor when Brown is termed out in 2019.)

That left Orange County Congressman Loretta Sanchez, a more moderate Democrat, as the principal challenger to Harris. She trailed the former San Francisco district attorney in last month's Field Poll, 27 percent to 14 percent, with the three best-known Republicans running at 5 percent and less. Since California has an open primary in which the top two regardless of party registration advance to the general election, the Harris-Sanchez primary face-off is mostly being deferred for what looks like the November general election match-up.

I spoke with Harris strategist Ace Smith, an old colleague who was a principal player as chief consultant in Jerry Brown's election as state attorney general, re-election as governor, and passage of the lynchpin Prop 30 tax initiative, as well as a top hand in Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. His logic seemed unassailable, if less than entertaining.

Harris, a cautious if charismatic pol who has said little as a Senate candidate beyond Democratic boilerplate, is in the lead, the real fight is in the fall, and Sanchez is a problematic candidate who hasn't laid a glove on the frontrunner. As for the Republicans, neither former state Republican Party chairs Duf Sundheim and Tom Del Beccaro nor former tech businessman and gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz has managed to get much going. And so on.

I get it. Smith's job, and that of his able colleagues, is to win the election, not to turn a state politician into a geopolitical strategist.

Along with Harris's chances, Smith, who managed Hillary's winning California campaign in 2008, likes Clinton's chances this time in both the primary and, of course, the general election.

Nevertheless, Sanders seems likely to put on a big show here in California, perhaps even ending up on top on June 7th. Though Hillary has won eight of nine primaries among the nation's 10 most populous states -- the largely unreported key to her impending nomination, accounting for the bulk of her big insurmountable 3.2 million popular vote lead over Sanders -- Sanders is within striking distance here.

I think he has a real shot. It won't alter the outcome of the Democratic presidential race -- the course of which was probably set when Hillary won three of the four small state February contests designed to allow a less famous and funded candidate to break through -- but wins in a few remaining states and a big vote and delegate haul in California will hand "Sandernistas" a big voice at the convention in Philadelphia.

The California primary is liable to more important on the Republican side. Not as important as in 2008, when it helped Senator John McCain to an early nomination triumph. Bt it seems likely to put an exclamation mark on Donald Trump's nomination victory.

"We've had enough intraparty fighting. Now's the time to stitch together a winning coalition. And it's been clear almost from the beginning that Donald Trump has the ability to assemble a nontraditional bloc of supporters. ... The ability to cut across traditional party boundaries -- like '80, '92 and 2008 -- will be key, and Trump is much better positioned to achieve that."

Former Utah Governor and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, the last moderate Republican presidential candidate (circa 2012), raising a white flag to Trumpism.

Ted Cruz's desperation move proclaiming ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina his vice-president-in-waiting won't help him here. Fiorina, at best a very controversial CEO of the Silicon Valley giant, was crushed by Senator Barbara Boxer in 2010. She has no real network here.

The brightest light of her Senate campaign, deputy campaign manager and communications director Julie Soderlund, had long ago moved on with her husband to live in Switzerland, pursuing international corporate work after years as a top PR strategist and campaign press secretary for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Soderlund, a vivacious Berkeley Phi Beta Kappa who should have had a wonderful future in politics, passed away late last week at age 38 from a shockingly virulent cancer diagnosed only last summer.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Fiorina, certainly one of the colder people I've encountered in politics, didn't mention Soderlund's passing in her California convention address over the weekend. For Fiorina had also moved on, to her new home on the, er, East Coast. All of which is to say that this is a final miscalculation by Ted Cruz.

California will likely prove to be Trump's coronation procession as the Republican nominee, a cavalcade sure to be marked by spirited protests as well as lively rallies. Will the protests, replete with the Mexican flag waving that killed any chance of defeating the anti-immigrant Prop 187 in 1994, be something that ends up helping Trump in the general election? We'll see.

For the Democrats, a different matter entirely, as it is likely to prove the last big electoral hurrah for Bernie Sanders's surprisingly powerful campaign. Sanders is in the midst of transitioning his challenge to Clinton into a more vivid version of the progressive wing of the national Democratic Party.

And that will be a fascinating development to track.

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