Deadlocks and easy wins: How the Democratic endorsement battles shaped up in Long Beach this weekend

In Summary

Here's a rundown of who did (and didn't) win the party's official backing this weekend in Long Beach

Between presidential forums, pep rallies and networking, delegates of California’s largest political party also spent part of their convention in Long Beach this past weekend deciding which 2020 candidates deserve the Democratic endorsement. 

There were few surprises. Divided races in the East Bay suburbs and Orange County were deadlocked, meaning the party will stay neutral before the March 3 primary.

In the race to replace retiring San Diego Rep. Susan Davis, the party gave its imprimatur to Georgette Gomez, San Diego’s city council president and the candidate with the backing of most of the party establishment. And a handful of long-shot progressive challenges to incumbent Democrats fizzled.

The one bit of drama: Bobby Bliatout, a businessman who largely self-funded an unsuccessful challenge to Tulare GOP Rep. Devin Nunes last year, got the formal party nod this time around. In doing so, he defeated a better-financed candidate with the backing of Andrew Janz, the leading Democratic challenger to Nunes last year.

Endorsement caucuses tend to receive less attention than the keynotes speeches and televised forums that define most party get-togethers. But for party activists, they often offer a dramatic highpoint — a forum where the ideological battles, internecine rivalries and the pent up frustrations of hundreds of sleep-deprived party activists spill out into the open (or at least onto Twitter).

This year, the drama was in short supply. That was in keeping with the relatively low-key undertone of a convention as notable for what did not transpire as what did. There were the no-shows by Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, the relative absence of booing and heckling that characterized previous confabs, and only a passing appearance by Gov. Gavin Newsom who ducked out early for his conservative in-laws’ 50th wedding anniversary — effectively leaving the West Coast’s largest Democratic party for a much smaller Republican one.

Moderate East Bay Democratic state Sen. Steve Glazer, who has a knack for ticking off organized labor, failed to get his party’s endorsement. But neither did his challenger, disability rights activist Marisol Rubio. 

For Rubio, denying Glazer the formal backing off his own party is a victory of sorts — denying him campaign help from Senate Democratic leadership in Sacramento.

But this isn’t a new challenge for Glazer. In a 2015 special election, he beat Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla despite (or maybe because) of her strong backing from labor groups. Glazer, who has called for bans on transit agency strikes and wants to reform teacher tenure rules, has endeared himself to the moderate voters in the Orinda area. 

Sen. Steve Glazer and Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins

In 2020, he will also be able to count on much higher name recognition among voters. Prior to the vote, Rubio insisted that the district as a whole is “much more progressive than it was four years ago.”

The party also won’t be picking a side in a contested senate race in Orange County. 

Dave Min, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress last year, is hoping to replace state Sen. John Moorlach, one of the most vulnerable of the remaining Republicans in a rapidly changing Orange County. So is fellow Democrat Katrina Foley, the mayor of Costa Mesa. Though Min won a majority of the votes at this weekend’s endorsing caucus, he failed to cross the 60% threshold needed to win the party’s formal support. 

Foley said her more moderate brand of politics is a “better fit for the district,” but can make organizing party activists, a necessary task to earn an endorsement, more difficult. “The activists want to hear the fiery partisanship,” she said.

Min, who was inspired to run for office after the election of 2016, said that his more clearly stated progressive views will make it clearer to voters why he is running for office. “The line from her campaign is that it’s her time, that she has the experience,” he said. “What you don’t hear is ‘why.’ Why is now her time?”

Min won the party endorsement in 2018, but failed to make one of the top two slots in the June election. That may speak to the inherent value of a party seal of approval. But in lower-profile races without an incumbent, a state party endorsement can offer voters, many of whom may have little information to go on, an electorally-decisive cue.

Bliatout is counting on it. Despite losing out on the party’s backing last year to Janz last year in their bid to unseat Nunes, Bliatout won 62% of the votes at the endorsing caucus — more than twice as many as Janz’ pick, Phil Arballo.

“Everyone is engaged and wants to do something — this is true activism,” said Bliatout, explaining his win. “We are united at this point against Devin Nunes.”

Last year, Janz raised $9.5 million in his run against Nunes, but lost by 5 percentage points.

While the party’s statewide endorsing convention was gaveled to a close on Sunday afternoon, a few high profile races have yet to be decided.

On the first day of the convention, Newsom announced that special elections for a congressional district in Simi Valley and a state senate district in Palm Springs would be held on March 3 to coincide with the statewide presidential primary. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held on May 12.

The party will call for local endorsing caucuses for those seats in the coming weeks.

The Simi Valley district was until recently represented by Katie Hill, who resigned from Congress after conservative media published nude photos of her online, forcing her to admit to a sexual relationship with a campaign staffer. Hill paid a brief visit to the convention this weekend, where she was enthusiastically received by delegates and visiting politicos, including presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. Hill has endorsed as her replacement Assemblywoman Christy Smith from Santa Clarita, as have most of the party’s establishment.

Katie Hill and Assemblywoman Christy Smith at the California Democratic Party’s Women’s Caucus meeting at the party’s convention in Long Beach

To the dismay of many party insiders, Cenk Uyger, the host of the progressive Youtube show and podcast The Young Turks, will also be running for the seat.

Also in play: the Palm Springs senate seat represented by conservative Republican Jeff Stone, who resigned to take a regional leadership position at the Department of Labor. At the moment, at least four Democrats have announced or are considering a run in what has become an increasingly purple seat.

A party endorsement could help to winnow down the field, ensuring that at least one Democrat makes it into the top two positions during the May run-off election, should there be one.

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