Central Valley is barren land when it comes to state campaign fundraising

The Sacramento BeeFebruary 20, 2014 

Tim Donnelly parked his campaign RV outside a Stockton house one night last week, asked for a Monster Energy drink and walked inside to the applause of a small crowd.

It "means everything to me," Donnelly said, that about 30 supporters paid the $99 price of admission.

But he asked for more "if you can."

The appeal, made over pinwheel sandwiches, taquitos and a few empty bottles of wine, is one the Republican candidate for governor repeated over and over this month, as he scrambled through parts of Central and Northern California in this early stage of the campaign.

Yet for the purposes of raising money in a gubernatorial race, the Valley is barren land. Inland California areas where Donnelly has focused much of his attention have generated just more than one-tenth of all funds raised by major candidates for governor in regular elections since 2002.

The Bay Area and the southern coast, which includes Los Angeles and San Diego, dominate the fundraising landscape, accounting for nearly 87% of all dollars raised.

The disparity is yet another indicator of the lack of political influence in less affluent and less densely populated reaches of the state. Governors visit infrequently, and a presidential visit, such as Barack Obama's appearance in Fresno a week ago, is so rare it can consume local media for days.

"There is very clearly an East-West divide in California, politically and ideologically," said Keith Smith, an assistant professor of political science at University of the Pacific in Stockton. "If you, from the Valley, go over the mountain ranges that run up and down our state, and head to the coast, you enter a different political world, one that's very clearly dominated by Democrats, that is concerned with a different set of issues than if you start at the coast and go over the mountains and come east."

In regular California gubernatorial elections, major candidates have raised more than $438 million from in-state donors since 2002, accounting for more than 91% of their fundraising from all states. Washington, D.C., and New York donors contributed nearly $16 million more.

Meanwhile, parts of California go nearly unrepresented. The desert region in Southern California has accounted for less than 1% of money raised. The Central Valley's share is less than 11%.

"I think the Valley always feels a bit overlooked, just because the impression is it lives in the shadow of Los Angeles and San Francisco," said Bill Jones, a Fresno Republican and former California secretary of state who raised more than half of his money from the Valley in his unsuccessful run for governor in 2002. "It's very important economically, and a lot of issues in the Valley -- education, unemployment -- these issues oftentimes seem to be put behind similar types of issues in the major metropolitan areas."

For conservatives in the Valley, disappointment has been heightened by the growing dominance of Democrats at the Capitol. No Republican holds statewide office, and the GOP has fallen to super-minority status in the Legislature.

"We know that there are more conservatives in inland California," said Jeff Cummins, a political science professor at Fresno State, "and conservative candidates have a harder time gaining traction in the state overall."

In inland California, frustration spills over. There are renewed -- if improbable -- calls for secession in the state's northern, rural counties. And in the Valley, waiting in the fog for Donnelly to arrive at a rally in the rural San Joaquin County town of Lockeford one recent morning, Ann Mehrten lamented how a brand of liberal politics foreign to her own world view could come to define her state.

"California would be a really good state," the Donnelly supporter said, "if we got rid of L.A. and San Francisco."

In the 2010 general election, now-Gov. Jerry Brown and his Republican challenger, Meg Whitman, received 70% of their votes from coastal counties, with the vast block of inland counties from the Tehachapis north to Oregon accounting for about 20%.

Still, there are political reasons for a Republican to spend time in the area. Though Brown is widely expected to finish first in the June primary election, the Central Valley is home to about 16% of the state's electorate, and Donnelly and Neel Kashkari, the two main Republicans running, will compete in this more conservative region for Republican votes. (Brown has yet to announce that he's running.)

"As a Republican, you can't write off anywhere because there's so few Republicans (statewide)," said David Townsend, a Democratic political consultant. "So what might look on the surface to be kind of a dumb schedule, to go to Roseville and Fresno and Bakersfield ... in a Republican primary, that's where the Republican votes are, they're inland."

Kashkari visited the World Ag Expo in Tulare this month, as did Brown. Donnelly's stops in Lockeford and Stockton came near the end of a 10-day spate of campaign events, pairing fundraisers with rallies and media appearances in cities and towns from Fresno to Monterey.

Deborah Wygant, who hosted Donnelly in Stockton, hung a Constitution poster on her wall and wore an American flag ring. Donnelly, an Assembly Member from Twin Peaks in the Lake Arrowhead area of Southern California, lamented that "we are ruled over by very powerful urban areas who don't understand our way of life," and he spoke about principles of government ruling with "our consent."

Wygant closed her eyes and nodded. But she knows she suffers in the minority.

"We don't have the power that zillions of people in L.A. would have," Wygant said. "In California, it's a lot on the more liberal side."

In the Central Valley, she added, "We either aren't heard, or we're outnumbered."

The reporters can be reached at (916) 321-1215 or (916) 326-5521, dsiders@sacbee.com or jmiller@sacbee.com, or @davidsiders or @jimmiller2 on Twitter.

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