When Sen. Barbara Boxer this month said she would not seek re-election next year, there was talk of the state’s old guard Democrats finally giving way to a younger generation of the party.
State Attorney General Kamala Harris has announced a run for Boxer’s seat, and others, such as former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and billionaire former hedge-fund manager and environmentalist Tom Steyer, are also being mentioned as possible candidates. With Gov. Jerry Brown in his final term and Sen. Dianne Feinstein being 85 when her current term ends, more openings are likely on the way.
This has led to other prominent Democrats being mentioned for these high-profile posts — Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, state Treasurer John Chiang, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, among others.
The problem for San Joaquin Valley Democrats — who enjoy voter-registration advantages in several districts, yet have lost them to rival Republicans — is that the up-and-comers are unlikely to excite the local electorate any more than the older generation did.
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“Increasingly the divide in California isn’t so much northern and southern as coastal and inland,” said Jack Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College government professor. “The coastal Democrats don’t connect with Democrats inland.”
The most obvious example of that played out with state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, who last summer — before he had assumed his current leadership post — said of the Valley: “No one lives out there in the tumbleweeds.”
In a broader sense, none of the new generation of powerful Democrats hails from the central San Joaquin Valley, and none save for Sanchez are identified as moderate to conservative, a political label that plays well here and is claimed by elected area Democrats such as Assembly members Rudy Salas of Bakersfield and Henry T. Perea of Fresno.
Newsom, Harris and Steyer are from the Bay Area. Padilla, Chiang and Villaraigosa are from Los Angeles. Steinberg and Jones are from Sacramento. Sanchez is from Orange County.
These emerging Democratic leaders are “alienated from the Central Valley, certainly from Modesto south,” said Tony Quinn, a longtime political analyst in California and a former Republican legislative aide. “It’s a different world.”
This changing of the guard comes at a time when Valley Democrats are struggling to win — even in districts where they hold several advantages over Republicans.
Democrats have double-digit voter-registration advantages in the congressional seat held by Hanford Republican David Valadao and the state Senate districts held by Hanford Republican Andy Vidak and Ceres Republican Anthony Cannella.
In all three, Democratic challengers didn’t pose serious threats in last November’s election, although Vidak’s win was only by 8 percentage points. Not only were the Democrats — at least in the case of Amanda Renteria, who faced Valadao, and Luis Chavez, who took on Vidak — smart and well-spoken, they also were Hispanic in Hispanic-dominated districts.
At the same time, Rep. Jim Costa, a Fresno Democrat, struggled in his re-election bid for the second time in the past three elections.
Salas, a Bakersfield Democrat who is widely considered ultra-conservative and was backed by several Republican elected officials, won re-election, but his district is always considered competitive and has switched between the two major parties over the past 15 years. It’s a similar case for the Assembly district held by Adam Gray, a Merced Democrat.
Given that, Valley Democrats in competitive races could use every advantage they can get.
Next year, the Senate candidate seeking to replace Boxer won’t drive turnout locally, Pitney said. That will be the presidential candidate. But maybe a U.S. Senate candidate could come to the Valley to make a campaign appearance with a local candidate, or help with a fundraiser.
Campaign experts, however, think the possible Senate candidates in particular, and the new crop of party leaders in general, are unlikely to inspire the local electorate, and may even do more harm than good.
“If I were a candidate running for office in (the Valley), I wouldn’t ask Kamala Harris to campaign for me,” Pitney said. “I’d send her my best wishes.”
Tom Holyoke, a Fresno State political science professor, took a similar view on Newsom, who many think will run for governor in 2018. Unlike next year, when a Senate candidate likely won’t drive turnout, the gubernatorial candidates in 2018 will be the top of the ticket and very likely will drive turnout, up or down.
Last year, Brown was the assumed winner early on, so he didn’t push turnout. Someone like Newsom could have the same effect, but for a different reason.
“He is a Bay Area liberal,” Holyoke said. “He’s not going to play here.”
In fact, Holyoke said, Republicans would almost certainly work to equate a local Democratic candidate to Newsom in a bad way, the way they have with Costa and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — “damning him by association even if there is no association there.”
Part of the problem is that most of the new guard have either never been to, or have rarely spent time in, the Valley.
In 2009, Newsom chose Fresno for a town hall meeting not long after saying he would run for governor. (He eventually ran for lieutenant governor.) He received two standing ovations from a packed house at the Wawona Middle School gymnasium, but the crowd, while passionate, numbered only around 200. He ended up getting pummeled in Fresno County in the 2010 election.
Harris paid a low-key Fresno visit. Chiang, while state controller, addressed the annual Central Valley Venture Forum in Clovis and also gave a speech to a packed room of Rotarians in downtown Fresno.
Both Newsom and Harris got clobbered in every San Joaquin Valley county from Kern north to Stanislaus last year when they sought re-election. Chiang performed somewhat better, winning in Fresno and Merced counties but losing to Republican Greg Conlon in Kern, Tulare, Kings, Madera, Mariposa and Stanislaus counties.
Many other up-and-comers haven’t run at all or haven’t run statewide, so they are largely unknown in the Valley and haven’t done much to change that.
“Certainly we haven’t seen a whole lot of these people here in the years they’ve been in office,” Holyoke said.
Part of the challenge is that the heart of the Democratic Party is on the coast, in the Bay Area and stretching into the state’s heart only around Sacramento. Those Democrats have different priorities than Democrats here. In the Valley, Democrats are almost as likely as Republicans to cite water as the top issue. Holyoke said Brown and Feinstein, but not too many others, have taken the time to consider Valley voices in the water debate.
Quinn, the political analyst, said ignorance of the Valley among most state Democratic Party leaders is a symptom of California’s current political climate. The leaders, both old guard and young guns, don’t really need Valley Democrats for victory. The party’s total dominance is secure with the Bay Area, Los Angeles and the coastal areas. If state Democrats took the time to understand Valley Democrats, some political experts think it could lead to political wins here, because this is one of the few remaining truly competitive parts of California.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy campaigned heavily in the Central Valley, Quinn said, because he wanted to win California and votes were here. Kennedy narrowly lost the state to Republican Richard Nixon — a native Californian.
“It was a swing area in a swing state,” he said of the Central Valley in 1960. “It’s still a swing area, but not a swing state.”