Kamala Harris could be the big winner as California moves up its 2020 primary

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Sen. Kamala Harris of California. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; Photos: AP)
Sen. Kamala Harris of California (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; Photos: AP)

Tired of taking a back seat to smaller states that play an outsized role in picking presidential candidates, California moved up its primary elections for 2020 to Super Tuesday, March 3. That switch would seem to benefit Sen. Kamala Harris’s candidacy, political observers say, though it also carries potential danger.

Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and former head of the Democratic National Committee, who ran in the Democratic primary in 2004, believes the switch gives Harris an added edge.

“The advantage will go to Kamala Harris and anybody else from California,” Dean told Yahoo News.

At the same time, entering Super Tuesday as the favorite to win an early California primary isn’t all good news for Harris, who national polls show is running third in a hypothetical field of Democrats behind Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

“It puts her at some risk,” Dean says of Harris. “If she goes in to California, she has to win. If for some reason she doesn’t, that’s going to be very problematic for her.”

Harris has won three statewide elections, and with potential rivals like billionaire businessman Tom Steyer and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti bowing out, she might end up as the only major candidate from California in the race. In the past two days, three of the state’s Democratic House members — Ted Lieu, Katie Hill and Nanette Barragan — have all endorsed Harris, solidifying her standing as the candidate to beat in California.

Senator Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California, gestures while speaking during an event to launch presidential campaign in Oakland, California, U.S., on Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)
Kamala Harris at her kickoff rally in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday. (Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

In 2016, California’s Democratic presidential primary was held on June 7, after the race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and independent Bernie Sanders was all but over. In 2020, California voters could begin casting mail-in ballots as early as Feb. 3, the same day as the Iowa caucuses. Early voting in the state would continue right through the make-or-break contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.

Veteran political consultant Bob Shrum, who worked on the presidential campaigns of John Kerry, Al Gore and Ted Kennedy, thinks Harris will do well in her home state’s primary, but only if she makes her mark in those four bellwether states.

“The challenge for someone like Kamala Harris, for example, is to establish herself in those early primaries,” Shrum said. “I don’t think she can skip Iowa or New Hampshire and just go to South Carolina. I think you really have to establish yourself through that whole succession of primaries and be one of the three or maybe four candidates who’ll survive until Super Tuesday.”

Harris appears to be heeding Shrum’s advice. Following her massive campaign kickoff rally on Sunday in Oakland, Calif., she headed to Des Moines, Iowa, to introduce herself to voters there with a CNN town hall. While the event made headlines across the state, it also generated interest outside of Iowa, drawing record ratings on CNN.

Holding one of the early nominating contests insures that issues that matter to a state’s residents will be addressed. For that reason, both Shrum and Dean agree with California’s decision to leapfrog other states and hold its primary in March instead of June.

“It made a lot of sense for California to move up because the state has really not played any kind of decisive role in Democratic primary politics since 1972, and it gives Californians a chance early in the process of what is potentially a decisive or quasi-decisive moment to be heard,” Shrum said.

Elizabeth Warren, United States senator from Massachusetts and one of the many Democrats running for president in 2020, speaks at the “Community Conversation about Puerto Rico and its Recovery” in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Tuesday Jan. 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who is also running for president, speaks in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 22. (Photo: Carlos Giusti/AP)

Dean, however, worries about what the change will mean for lesser-known candidates.

“I don’t blame them for moving up, because they were sort of a rubber stamp, but now they’re up so far that they’re almost going to negate their usefulness,” Dean said. “The first four primaries will winnow the field significantly. The problem with California moving this far up is that nobody is going to have any money by the time they get through the first four. It’s going to be a problem.”

Harris, whose campaign declined to comment for this article, has already proved that she is a candidate who can raise significant sums. In the 24 hours after she announced her presidential bid, she took in over $1.5 million in donations. With 475 pledged delegates at stake in California early in the nominating process of 2,382 needed to win the nomination, candidates will now be forced to allocate resources in a large state where television airtime isn’t cheap.

“California’s delegates aren’t afforded on a winner-take-all basis, they’re afforded on a proportional basis, so as long as you can clear the threshold, you can get 20 percent, 25 percent of the delegates,” Shrum said.

Besides Harris, other candidates with name recognition, like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, are hoping to win some of those delegates.

"Elizabeth Warren is eager to meet voters from cities and towns across the country about issues important to them and their experience, and she'll continue traveling to as many states as possible in the coming months," a Warren spokesperson said in an emailed statement when asked how California’s new primary date would affect the race.

But Dean thinks the cost of running hard in California may outweigh the benefit for some candidates.

Supporters cheer while listening to U.S. Senator Kamala Harris speak at the launch of her campaign for President of the United States at a rally at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in her hometown of Oakland, California, U.S., January 27, 2019.  REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Supporters cheer while listening to Kamala Harris at her Oakland rally on Sunday. (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

“If I were in the lead after the first four states, let’s say I had a 1-1-3-3 finish in those contests, in no particular order, I might skip California and just say, great, a lot of delegates, great place, but I’m not spending $50 million,” Dean said. “I’ll go on to the next state.”

Voters in Texas, Virginia, Vermont, Oklahoma, Tennessee, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Alabama will also cast ballots on March 3.

Conversely, doing very well in the first four contests sets up the tantalizing prospect of being able to close out the primary early by running up the score in California.

“If somebody sweeps the first four primaries, then I can see that person getting 68 percent of the delegates in California and then the race basically being over,” Shrum said. “I think it would be a very foolish thing to skip California.”

Shrum and Dean agree that Harris had a stellar first week on the campaign trail, but so did other candidates.

“I thought Elizabeth Warren’s first week was terrific. I mean, look, we’re going to see a lot of terrific candidates,” Dean said.

Shrum also cautions that early momentum has a way of evaporating in presidential primaries.

“There have been plenty of people who’ve been the president of February or September,” Shrum said. “This is a long process that tests people.”

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