In summary

Seven candidates talk mega donors, wildfire and other California touchstones in Los Angeles

If Sen. Elizabeth Warren is hoping to clean up in California during the state’s March presidential primary, she’ll have to make do without the Napa wine cave vote.

It was one of the most contentious and reoccurring spats at tonight’s televised Democratic debate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles: A winery in Rutherford in the Napa Valley became fodder in the latest flare-up between two of the leading presidential candidates, as well as a pitch-perfect symbol of a purportedly elite donor class and an inequitable campaign finance system.

At issue was a fundraising dinner that South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg held at the chandelier-festooned Hall Rutherford earlier this week. Tickets for the event were reportedly $2,800.

“We made the decision many years ago that rich people in smoke-filled rooms would not pick the next president of the United States,” said Warren, the Massachusetts senator whose campaign has been taking jabs at Buttigieg for weeks over his dependence on large-dollar donors. “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States.”

Buttigieg countered that Warren herself is a millionaire. He also argued that in the political “fight of our lives” against President Trump, “we need everybody’s help.”

Not content to merely play the role of campaign cash machine, California moved its presidential primary toward the front of the 2020 calendar in order to play a more outsized role in shaping the discourse. Unlike several others, this debate did feature a significant discussion about climate change — an issue that recent polls suggest is highly important to Democrats in Californians — although there was little disagreement among those on stage.

But in tonight’s nearly three-hour debate among the top seven candidates vying to replace President Trump, a wine cellar fundraiser was the most prominent Golden State reference point.

After the Warren-Buttigieg spat died down, businessman Andrew Yang and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar took their turn, taking what was evidently an irresistible political symbol and using it to make their own curated appeals.

Yang argued that a universal basic income program, the central feature of his presidential campaign, would allow more women to run for office “because they (wouldn’t) have to go shake the money tree in the wine cave.”

Klobuchar, who has argued (sometimes subtly, sometimes not) that her Midwestern roots make her more electable, quipped that while she’s never been to a wine cave, she has been to the Wind Cave in South Dakota.

It’s the opposite of exclusive — a national park.

For the most part, the debate was focused on issues of national importance. The winnowed field of seven spoke about impeachment, the state of the U.S. economy, climate change, transgender rights and racial discrimination. 

The debate was also notable for who wasn’t on the stage. California Sen. Kamala Harris dropped out earlier this month despite qualifying for a spot on the stage. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard didn’t make the cut.

Wine caves aside, California, the state hosting the debate, did make a few more surprise appearances.

As a majority non-white state, California was repeatedly characterized as a vision of the nation’s demographic future.

“This is America, you’re looking at it,” said Klobuchar when asked about the state’s majority non-white population.

It was a point echoed by Tom Steyer, the billionaire philanthropist and mega-donor, who argued that President Trump “is against immigration by non-white people,” before reminding the audience that Steyer himself is the only person on the stage from the “majority-minority state…California.”

Likewise, both Yang and Klobuchar pointed to California’s endemic wildfires as an example for the need to act on climate change.

The Minnesota senator also praised California Gov. Gavin Newsom, citing his ongoing legal battle with the Trump administration over maintaining the state’s stricter fuel efficiency standards.

But the geographic pandering was limited. California’s early place in the primary notwithstanding, it still comes a month after the Iowa caucuses. And it remains a solid-blue afterthought in the Electoral College, where swing states like Pennsylvania and Michigan will be more determinative.

In order to win, a candidate has to “bring in the Midwestern vote,” said Klobuchar. “I think the best way to do it is by putting somebody at the top of the ticket who is from the Midwest!”

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Ben covers housing policy and previously covered California politics and elections. Prior to these roles at CalMatters, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and...