Will California’s GOP presidential primary really count?

A campaign stop in Oxnard during a presidential contest. (Photo: Joseph Sohm)

It may be 16 months before voters select the next president of the United States, but the presidential campaign has been underway for more than a year. While Democrats may yet have a more significant contest if Vice President Joe Biden decides to join the fray and challenge current front runner  Hillary Clinton, Republicans have created a political mosh pit featuring 36 declared candidates and filled with no shortage of pointed invective. Of the 36 Republicans, 17 are considered serious contenders. As usual, those contenders have descended on early primary and caucus states, chumming through New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina in search of support and generating plenty of news along the way.

At the moment, in California, they are only chumming for money.

“You could win three counties east of Los Angeles and get the same amount of votes as you would for all of New Hampshire.”

California doesn’t hold its primary until June 2016, by which time the candidates will have slugged it out in 30 states. As a result, the question asked every four years once again floats above the landscape: Will California have a say in choosing the nominee, especially the Republican nominee?

Because California will send the largest delegation to the GOP Convention, many prominent Golden State Republicans insist it will.

Mike Madrid, a GOP political consultant, said the very size of the Republican slate makes California relevant.

“Every campaign should be looking at California,” Madrid said in an interview. “California is far more important and has a sizeable share of congressional districts.”

California delegates are chosen in winner-take-all contests in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts, with each district electing three delegates. California’s presidential contest is the one primary not subject to the top-two system that governs primaries for statewide office, Congress and the Legislature.

This system of voting by district is why Madrid believes California will matter.

“There’s every incentive to keep going until California.” Madrid argued, “You could win three counties east of Los Angeles and get the same amount of votes as you would for all of New Hampshire.”

Harmeet Dhillon, vice chair of the California Republican Party, agreed.

“California’s sizeable delegation will absolutely have an impact in the primary,” Dhillon said. With what she called an “unusual cycle” larded with so many candidates and no current frontrunner, she said candidates should focus on [California] districts where they can win a plurality. She said this strategic approach is especially important for less-prominent candidates who lack a financial advantage. Dhillon said they could build “grassroots efforts” and “focus on specific pockets of support throughout the state.”

And then there was Bush, who visited San Francisco last month where he was driven around by an Uber driver who told reporters he planned to vote for Hillary Clinton.

To win the GOP nomination, a candidate must capture about 1,144 out of 2,470 delegates to the Republican National Convention. California will send 172 of those delegates to the national convention in Cleveland, or 15 percent of those needed to win – more delegates than Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada combined.

Many California Republicans also agreed that this election cycle, with such a large field of candidates, could make California play a much more prominent role than in years past..

“There’s a possibility for the first time in ages, it could go all the way to the convention,” said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the “California Target Book” and a political consultant.

Former Assemblyman Roger Niello (R-Sacramento) believes the size of the current GOP field contributes to California’s relevance.

“It depends on how long it will take to reduce a huge field to a small field,” Niello said. “The Republican side in California could have quite an influence if things are still unsettled.”

Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party, also believes the large candidate list will enhance California’s role in the primaries.

With so many candidates, Whitaker explained, “it could take a while to whittle down, there’s probably going to be enough candidates still left.” He said that after the Super Primaries in March, there could still be a few candidates who will need to, “really be making a play for it.” He added, “That’s where California will really be influential in that process for the long haul.”

As the candidate list continues to grow, a clear winner may not emerge prior to the California primary. And that, state Republicans insist, means that the candidates will have to pay attention to California Republican voters, as opposed only to California donors.

“They need to have lots of money to get on TV. This is the TV state.”

Some candidates already are paying attention. Those who have made at least a cursory stop-over include Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who gave a February speech at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley. Scott Walker and Marco Rubio each visited Orange County — twice. Walker, Mike Huckabee and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz showed up at an ALEC convention in San Diego in July, and then repaired to a private Coachella Valley conference sponsored by the Koch brothers, where they were joined by Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina. Rand Paul came to Orange County for Flag Day. Donald Trump, of course, owns chunks of California, including a golf course in Rancho Palos Verdes.

And then there was Bush, who visited San Francisco last month where he was driven around by an Uber driver who told reporters he planned to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Nonetheless, Whitaker believes that visits to California are important for fundraising, an activity, many agreed, that is particularly important for any candidate not named Bush or Trump.

“First and foremost, candidates will need us to raise campaign funds. Orange County in particular and California have always played a role for support,” said Whitaker.

Tony Quinn, a non-partisan political analyst, argued the same point.

“Since California will not be a competitive general-election state, consequently it plays its traditional role as the ATM,” Quinn said, adding, “They need to have lots of money to get on TV. This is the TV state.”

“They have to campaign more,” Niello said. “They have appeared at Republican conventions, but we will probably see more campaigning here in California.”

“It’s an important … for Republicans to communicate that it’s not a party of the wealthy,”

“They need to show up, it’s really that simple,” Madrid said, adding that the candidates should be “organizing the lower-turnout districts and the Democratic-dominated areas.” San Francisco, despite its low number of registered Republicans, also will send three delegates to the convention. According to Madrid, the main effort for each candidate should be to “show up and build an infrastructure.”

While raising money in California’s lucrative political vineyards, candidates also are advised by local Republicans to score primary points by focusing on key issues – “fiscal issues, foreign policy issues, immigration ….”

“Water law could be an issue,” said Hoffenblum. “Foreign policy is going to be a very big issue, terrorism and what have you.”

“They all just want to have a different message than the current president,” said Whitaker. “But they need to have a policy prescription that really speaks [to Republican voters].”

Christine Hughes, chair of the San Francisco Republican Party, agreed that Republicans need to send a different message – but also to create a different image for themselves.

“This is a state that tends to favor the better known candidates. You have to be known.”

“I think that the brand of the [Republican] party in California is associated as a party that favors the wealthy and that favors the corporate world,” Hughes said. For Republicans to be successful in California, the party must paint a different picture.

“It’s an important … for Republicans to communicate that it’s not a party of the wealthy,” she said. “Republicans have to speak more from their hearts and less from their minds.”

Tony Krvaric, chairman of the San Diego Republican Party, said that the impression a candidate makes on constituents is equally if not more important than his or her position on various issues.

“Very few people are one-issue voters,” Krvaric said. “The average person is much more sophisticated than that,” adding that voters also consider a candidate’s character.

“Do they like them? Do they seem like a good leader? Do they seem honest and trustworthy?” Krvaric explained.

Quinn believes “money and name ID” will give candidates an advantage in “this enormous state that is so spread out.” As a result, Quinn believes Bush will have an advantage in California.

“This is a state that tends to favor the better known candidates,” Quinn said. “You have to be known.”

If California has any significance in the 2016 presidential election, it will come as the final, perhaps crucial hurdle for securing the Republican nomination. After the June primary, most agreed, the state will turn bright blue as it drops into the Democrats’ bucket.

“No Republican president today is going to win California,” Hoffenblum said.

“The irony,” said Madrid, “is our only relevance in the presidential contest in 2016 could be the central nominee. After that, it’s over.”

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