News

Central Valley: A U.S. Senate battleground?

The sprawling Central Valley of California, the world's richest farm belt. (Photo: ).

As state attorney general, Kamala Harris has given key issues of the Central Valley particular attention, which could play politically well for her 2016 run for Sen. Barbara Boxer’s soon-to-be vacant seat.

Rich in Latinos, most of whom are Democrats, the Central Valley also could prove to be a decisive battleground, especially if a Latino enters the fray. Thus far, Harris is the only declared contender but others are seriously contemplating it, including former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. But California’s farm belt hasn’t been kind to statewide Democratic candidates in the past.

The prospects of taking the farm belt are daunting — especially if a well-known Latino like Villaraigosa enters the race. But Harris has made moves that could improve her Central Valley prowess.

The political importance of the region, particularly the lower valley with its huge agricultural yields, hasn’t been lost on Harris, a Democrat, as she cranks up her campaign.

“She’s spent a lot of time in the Central Valley as A.G., and not all the time in the presence of camera or a press pool,” said Harris’ campaign strategist Brian Brokaw. “When she was pushing for the passage for the Homeowner’s Bill of Rights she went down to some of the hardest hit areas in California, in terms of the foreclosure crisis, and the Central Valley was really ground zero to a large extent.”

Of 10 farm-belt counties – Butte, Colusa, Fresno, Glenn, Kern, Madera, Merced, Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Tulare, Harris was beaten for reelection by a Republican opponent in all but San Joaquin, and that race was razor thin, with Harris winning by less than a thousand votes out of 114,000 cast.

Boxer, a liberal Democrat, suffered a similar fate in her 2010 reelection campaign — and lost San Joaquin to Carly Fiorina.

In both of her statewide runs for attorney general, Harris was beaten by her low-profile opponents from Shasta County in the North all the way down to Kern County. And even though Democrats got more voters at the polls in both Merced and Fresno Counties, she lost in those areas too.

So the prospects of taking the farm belt are daunting — especially if a well-known Latino like Villaraigosa enters the race. But Harris has made moves that could improve her Central Valley prowess.

If he decides to run, Villaraigosa, the former Assembly Speaker and mayor of Los Angeles Mayor, will  have been out of elected office for three years. He was last elected to office in 2009.

Backed by state lawmakers, Harris pushed for California’s first rules for fair lending and borrowing practices to protect homeowners — a crucial issue in the Valley, which was hit hard by the Great Recession. As chief law enforcement officer, she’s assisted local law enforcement officials in the Central Valley with major drug busts involving transnational crime organizations, including the Mexican drug cartels. Over the years, she has advocated for reducing school truancy rates — a key issue in the Valley.

Whether that helps her in the race for Boxer’s seat is an open question.

The filing deadline for the race is more than a year away, but already the field has narrowed dramatically in Harris’ favor, with several would-be candidates declining to run or throwing their endorsements behind her.

But Villaraigosa’s name is surfacing, too, sparked in part by his allies angered at the early rush of support for Harris. If he decides to run, Villaraigosa, the former Assembly Speaker and mayor of Los Angeles Mayor, will  have been out of elected office for three years. He was last elected to office in 2009.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the chair of the California Democratic delegation, estimated the entire Senate race could could cost $100 million, a figure that likely includes hefty out-of-state PAC money from Republicans as well as Democrats,

According to his old friend, former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez,  Villaraigosa soon will either declare his candidacy or make it clear he’s not running.

In order to lock down the money and endorsements he would need to run a sustainable Senate campaign, political pros believe he needs to announce his intentions fast. Harris already has a head start.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the chair of the California Democratic delegation, told Roll Call that the entire Senate race could could cost $100 million, a figure that likely includes hefty out-of-state PAC money from Republicans as well as Democrats, and that means Villaraigosa will need to start raising money quickly. Federal rules cap individual donations at $2,700 each.

The narrative up till this point has been how will the Los Angeles block of the state size up against the Bay Area – a deciding factor in recent elections. The Bay Area makes up in voter turnout what it lacks in population relative to Southern California’s largest county, and some say that’s all Harris really needs in to win the general election.

But would Villaraigosa’s entrance into the race challenge that assumption and energize the Latino electorate north, south and inland? Statewide, Latinos represent about 38 percent of the electorate, and about four in 10 likely Latino voters live in Los Angeles County, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

California has never held a top-two primary election during a presidential year not featuring an incumbent candidate for president — which will be the case in 2016.

“If she’s going to get this election, she’s not going to win it in the Central Valley,” Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP strategist who now publishes the nonpartisan California Target Book, said. “The old adage is find out where you’re strong and make yourself stronger, rather than target areas where you’re weak.”

California’s top-two primary also could pose an issue for Harris and Villaraigosa. If Harris wins, do Democrats who voted for Villaraigosa in the primary rally around Harris in the general? Past voting patterns in the Valley suggest not. Another factor: Voter turnout is likely to be higher in 2016, a presidential election year, and major ballot propositions are expected to appear on the November 2016 ballot.

But primary election turnout traditionally is low. With the presidential nomination more likely to be a contested race for Republicans in June 2016, Democrats might just stay home on Election Day until the general in November.

Though it’s hard to predict what the dynamics will be more than a year out, California has never held a top-two primary election during a presidential year not featuring an incumbent candidate for president — which will be the case in 2016.  Does that create an opening for Republicans in heavily Democratic California?

“This U.S. Senate race is really interesting,” said Tim Clark, a GOP political consultant who most recently worked on Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s statewide run for the Controller’s Office. The Central Valley mayor won second place in a highly competitive primary election featuring many popular Democrats, even beating out former Assembly Speaker John Pérez.

Latino Caucus consultant Roger Salazar, whose firm distributed the poll, said what’s clear “is whether it’s in L.A., or the Inland Empire, or the Central Valley, is we have a lot of work to do to energize that Latino base.”

Swearengin hasn’t ruled out the possibility of jumping in the 2016 Senate race, Clark said, but as a Republican she has the luxury of having more time than Democrats to make that announcement.

“If Swearengin runs in the primary, the Central Valley especially will deliver to her the votes she needs to be in the top-two. No doubt about it,” he said. “If Swearengin doesn’t run and Antonio Villaraigosa runs vs. Kamala, and you’re in a runoff with Antonio and Kamala, I think the Valley is absolutely key to Antonio in that race.”

If a Latino politician decides to run, it could bring Latino voters to the polls in both the primary and general election,  according to one poll recently commissioned and released by Legislature’s Latino Caucus in an effort to encourage a Latino candidate to make a Senate bid.

Latino Caucus consultant Roger Salazar, whose firm distributed the poll, said what’s clear “is whether it’s in L.A., or the Inland Empire, or the Central Valley, is we have a lot of work to do to energize that Latino base.”

Though turnout in the Valley is on the upswing, losing in that area hasn’t been detrimental for candidates like Harris because they’ve been saved by the voters along the coast. But as the poll noted, that could change if a Latino candidate joins the running and is able to get the base to vote. In the last presidential year, Latino voter turnout was 19%.

But Harris has advantages.  Unlike Villaraigosa, she will have six years in a high-profile statewide office that’s been able to address issues facing Valley residents. And her campaign is gearing up to speak to that track record.

“A lot of the issues that have been in her area of focus as A.G. are important issues in the Central Valley and throughout the state,” Brokaw, Harris’ campaign consultant, said. “She’ll be campaigning on her record no matter where the campaign trail takes her.”


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: