As Democrats prepare to gather in San Jose later this month, convention delegates will deal with a handful of bruising primary fights. Many of those fights will come to the convention floor, as candidates busily jockey for a party endorsement in what is expected to be a very low-turnout election.
A handful of candidates have already received their party's backing. Through an intricate series of party rules, a number of candidates locked up support at Democratic Party pre-endorsement caucuses that took place around the state last week.
Among the biggest surprises, perhaps, was the success of Cathedral City Councilman Greg Pettis in securing his party's nod. (Pettis secured the necessary 70 percent support from delegates and Democratic club members in his district but must secure the final endorsement at the convention.) Pettis faces a tough primary in a seat Democrats desperately want to recapture in November. Current incumbent Bonnie Garcia, R-Cathedral City, is being forced from office by term limits.
"It sends a clear message that we can win in both Riverside and Imperial counties," Pettis said. "It energizes my volunteers and gets them moving forward to the next stage. Everything snowballs off of this."
Pettis' endorsement was greeted warmly by Republican political consultant Matt Rexroad, who is managing the campaign of the Republican, former Palm Springs Police Chief Gary Jeandron, in that district.
"We're begging for Pettis," says Rexroad. "A gay activist is not going to play in Imperial County. I think Gary Jeandron is a great candidate, but the Democrat Party nominating Pettis would be our best chance of holding on to that district."
The 80th Assembly District represents one of the Democrats' best opportunities to pick up a seat in November. Other Democratic targets include the San Diego County seat held by Shirley Horton, D-Chula Vista. That race also features a bruising Democratic primary between attorney Auday Arabo; Marty Block, president of the San Diego Community College Board of Trustees; and Arlie Ricasa, president of the Sweetwater Union High School District School Board.
In the 15th Assembly District, Democrat Joan Buchanan will be the party's standard-bearer in the attempt to place the seat currently held by Guy Houston, R-San Ramon, back in the Democratic column.
While Republicans will be forced to play defense to hold on to their 32 seats, they do have one strong pickup possibility. Republican Danny Gilmore, who narrowly lost to Democratic incumbent Nicole Parra two years ago, is a strong candidate, running against Shafter Mayor Fran Florez, mother of Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter.
A Democratic Party endorsement brings with it a number of political and financial advantages. But it is unclear how many of those advantages apply in party primaries. In general elections, county and state party political committees are used by candidates as a way around campaign contribution limits. While candidates can only receive direct contributions in $3,300 increments, there is no limit on the amount a donor can give to a state or county party. County party committees have been used by both parties as virtual clearinghouses to move large blocks of money into targeted races.
But that strategy has some risks and pitfalls. Instead, most of the big money is expected to be spent on independent expenditure committees in the primary battles. In the race in Yolo County's 8th Assembly District, West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon is expected to be the benefactor of a large independent expenditure committee from his former billionaire employers at EdVoice. His opponent, Yolo County Supervisor Mariko Yamada, may receive some IE money of her own from teachers unions and other labor groups that have tangled with Cabaldon.
Cabaldon was among those who received his party's initial endorsement earlier this month. While he says the endorsement may not have any financial advantages in his race against Yamada, the show of support is valuable in other ways.
"For voters in June, knowing that I'm the official endorsed candidate of the Democratic Party is very powerful," Cabaldon said. "It's a statement about what my policy priorities are. In the last primary election, all but one of the candidates who got the endorsement won their primaries."
Democratic consultant Andrew Acosta says that may be especially true this year, when legislative elections stand virtually alone on the June ballot. "It's going to be a low-turnout election, so you're talking about hard-core Democrats who will be coming out to vote. The endorsement is another strong indicator that, even if they don't know the candidate, that the candidate is good on core Democratic issues."
Republicans do not endorse candidates in intra-party primaries. In Placer County, the local Republican Party endorsed Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, in his run for Congress against former Congressman Doug Ose. A spokesman for the state Republican Party said that endorsement was in violation of the state Republican Party bylaws.
"On the Republican side, we use other surrogates," said Rexroad. "We have groups like the California Republican Assembly or the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, and they help give guidance to voters. The Republican Party surrenders the opportunity to be the focal point in the