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Joe Biden lacks big-name California allies as he launches presidential bid

Vice President Joe Biden is a popular figure among California Democrats, but that doesn’t mean he can count on the backing of party leaders in the state for his 2020 presidential run, launched Thursday morning. With Biden in the race, Democrats’ presidential field now features more than 20 candidates.

President Barack Obama’s two-time running mate has lead recent polls of Democratic primary voters in California, topping even 2016 candidate Bernie Sanders and home state Sen. Kamala Harris. And he has developed extensive ties to the state’s elected officials, activists and donors over the course of his 40-plus-year political career.

That’s earned him the support of one prominent California politician, senior Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who signaled her support behind Biden rather than Harris, her current Senate colleague, back in January. “They are really good friends and are close personally and she is a big admirer of his, so I expect that she is going to go all out for him,” said Bill Carrick, Feinstein’s longtime political adviser.

But beyond Feinstein, Biden may not be able to make many inroads with the state’s leaders. As Democratic consultant Mac Zilber noted, “Kamala’s team has locked down the lion’s share of endorsements from California elected officials.”

Harris has already nabbed the backing of almost all of California’s current statewide leaders, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, Treasurer Fiona Ma and Secretary of State Alex Padilla. She also has the support of Southern California Reps. Ted Lieu, Katie Hill, Julia Brownley and Nanette Barragan, as well as Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland, Harris’ hometown.

Rep. Ro Khanna of Fremont — a donor to Biden’s 2008 president campaign — has endorsed Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Most of the rest of California’s 46 House Democrats have thus far stayed out of the primary race (aside from East Bay Rep. Eric Swallwell, who is, himself, running for president), and aren’t expected to pick sides until later this year, if at all.

And while Carrick said that Biden has a strong fundraising network in California, it’s not at all clear past donors will rally to his side in 2020.

Take, for example, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Hollywood film producer and Democratic mega-donor. Katzenberg hosted a fundraiser for Biden’s political action committee, American Possibilities, in Los Angeles last fall. And both Katzenberg and his wife gave Biden’s PAC gave the maximum $10,000 donation during the 2018 election cycle.

But the Associated Press reported that Katzenberg has been fighting to host a fundraiser for another 2020 candidate, South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, during Buttigieg’s upcoming swing through the state.

Two other prominent contributors to Biden’s PAC last election, Los Angeles-area philanthropist Eli Broad and Silicon Valley investor Ron Conway, have already given to Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential campaigns this year, campaign finance records show.

Sanders, meanwhile, has marshaled an army of loyal activists and small-dollar donors in California and around the country, and has continued to draw big crowds for his 2020 appearances in the state.

“To the degree that donors will be writing checks to multiple candidates, I expect (Biden) will receive some of those; but I don’t think there are a lot of folks that are exclusively for him,” said Democratic political consultant Katie Merrill.

“A lot of the donor community and the fundraisers, the bundler world, they’re being nice to everybody,” agreed Carrick. “The candidate shopping is in full, full, high velocity here.”

None of the Democratic consultants McClatchy spoke to for this article said they knew of anyone working for Biden in California, either as an adviser or full-time campaign staff. Los Angeles-based fundraising consultant Kimberly Ray, Biden’s Western Finance Director during his 2008 presidential run, did not reply to queries about a possible role on Biden’s 2020 campaign. A spokesman for Biden also declined to comment.

“The next 30-60 days will be really important for Biden and his campaign,” said Amanda Renteria, a former California congressional candidate who served as national political director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Renteria said that despite Harris’ grip on elected officials in California, there are still openings for Biden and other candidates to pick up support in parts of the state where her network is weaker, including the Central Valley, the Central Coast and the San Diego area. “They are now making calls in earnest and it will be interesting to see who jumps in.”

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and writes the Impact2020 newsletter. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.