Dems Pre-Endorsements Presage Tough 2012

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The Democratic faithful cast early, early votes. (Photo via Twitter by Jason Moore)

For casual political watchers, it may be hard to believe that small gatherings of diehard Democrats in January will decide who wins races for the Legislature or Congress come November.

And yet, in some cases, that's exactly what could happen after this weekend. Welcome to the world of intraparty competition under California's new primary election rules.

Democrats across the state gathered in regional meetings on Saturday and Sunday to vote in what were known as "pre-endorsement" meetings -- gatherings to determine whether particular legislative and congressional candidates would receive endorsements of the California Democratic Party at its convention next month in San Diego.

The basic rules were simple: any candidate receiving at least 70% of the votes in the local meeting will have his or her candidacy placed on an endorsement "consent calendar" at the convention. Translation: they're almost guaranteed to be the official party nominee in 2012.

Candidates who received between 50% and 70% of the votes at their local weekend meeting are now eligible for, but not guaranteed of, the state Democratic party's seal of approval at the February convention. And if no one received at least 50% of the votes, Dems won't offer any endorsement in that legislative or congressional primary.

(And don't even ask me the rules for how Democrats in these local party meetings gained eligibility to vote. Instructions from IKEA make more sense.)

Again, these meetings and subsequent endorsements are notable because of the brave new world of party primaries, ushered in by 2010's Proposition 14 top-two system. It's a world unsettled, too, by new district maps that have left more open seats than at any time in recent history.

As such, a number of Democratic candidates are scrambling for an advantage. And the gold standard is thought (by many) to be the official "Democratic Party candidate" come June.

(If you're wondering about similar fights between Republicans for an official party endorsement, don't. The state GOP's rules are such that getting a state party endorsement is probably harder than a 49'er not letting a punt hit him on the leg. Ouch; too soon?)

Keep in mind that the angling for the inside track among Democrats didn't just start this weekend. Candidates and political consultants have lamented for weeks about the accelerated pace of campaigning under the new rules, beginning with earlier-than-normal endorsements by a number of powerful interest groups. Many believed that an endorsement by these groups -- be it labor, environmentalists, or public safety -- would then create momentum toward this weekend's pre-endorsement and/or next month's convention.

As the tally posted Sunday night by the indefatigable Scott Lay shows, some of the hot races will only get ever so hotter next month at the convention, as either the front-runner or the candidate with the greatest name ID/grassroots support/media attention didn't cross the 70% threshold.

Count in that category the "Battle of the --ermans" in the newly drawn 30th congressional district, where Rep. Brad Sherman came out ahead, but failed to cement his status as the preferred Dem over Rep. Howard Berman. Seven other closely watched races produced a Democratic favorite but no pre-endorsed candidate. That includes one of the most contentious Democratic intraparty fights, in the 50th Assembly district between incumbent Betsy Butler, who is moving into a newly drawn district already occupied by fellow Dems Torie Osborn and Richard Bloom.

Meantime, 17 candidates in closely did manage to snag the all-but-official Democratic party nomination this weekend. That includes contentious battles in the 19th Senate district (former assemblymember Hannah Beth Jackson over Port Hueneme commissioner Jason Hodge); the 9th Senate district (incumbent Loni Hancock getting the nod over incumbent assemblymember Sandre Swanson); the 27th Senate district (incumbent Fran Pavley with no declared opponent but who may be challenged by former Assembly speaker Bob Hertzberg); the 44th congressional district (incumbent Janice Hahn getting the pre-endorsement over fellow incumbent member of Congress Laura Richardson); and the 51st congressional district (where state senator Juan Vargas bested ex-state senator Denise Ducheny, as the tweeted photo above shows).

There were many more on the watch list where the weekend meeting was so divided that there will be no official Democratic party endorsement. Many of these are open seats with multiple Democrats vying for the job, but a few are fights between well-known politicians that could be costly and nasty by the time the dust settles.

And just when will that dust settle? In years past, the fight in these districts for Democratic bragging rights would have ended the day after the primary. But the new rules mean that in districts heavily dominated by one party, the primary will likely push two candidates from the same party onto the November 6 ballot -- where the internal battle will rage on.

Update 2:01 p.m. It's worth pointing out that in a legislative or congressional district where one candidate received at least 50% support this past weekend (but not 70%), any candidate could receive the endorsement at next month's convention. "In other words it's more like it goes into round two" in San Diego, writes Democratic party spokesperson Tenoch Flores.

3:34 p.m. The state party has now posted a PDF online of the results.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • http://twitter.com/MikeMcMahonAUSD Mike McMahon

    It is my understanding the entire endorsement process has been accelerated so that candidates can use the endorsement of the State party in their campaign statements filed in March.

  • Speech85

    I guess that doesn’t bother me as much as how closed the process is.  Look, I am relatively active in local politics (I show up to meetings anyway lol), have been a registered Dem almost all my voting life (except for a brief stint when I was undeclared) and would have loved to participate. But I couldn’t even find out where the meeting was being held–or, indeed, if there was one for my districts.  That’s the part that bothers me.

  • Tedlaw

    You are correct about this, but it is sad, because in some races, there are candidates still undecided about running.  There are also a couple of places where major candidates may not file and if that happened, others would jump into the race.

  • Dem Activist

    We are 4 months away from the 1st vote for State and Federal races. If you have not declared your intentions by this point, then you are not a credible candidate and one who is not worthy of the party’s endorsement. 

  • Dem Activist

    http://www.cadem.org or http://www.cademconvention.org are the websites that are always updated with information about the party and meetings such as this. The only people who were eligible to vote in these meeting were the previously elected delegates over the past year. Stay tuned so that you can participate in this party process in the future. 

  • Coby King

    Eligibility is pretty simple.  First, you must be a registered Democrat in the particular district.  Then, you must be a member of Democratic state central committee, a regular Democratic county committee member, or a “designated” representative of a local chartered Democratic club. 

  • Speech85

    Thanks!

  • Bill Baca

    Bob Hertzberg is the most qualified person to run in the 27th State Senate District.
    No one can light a candle to Bob Hertzberg!