While California is the nation’s most populous and richest state – and has been for a half-century – it hasn’t wielded the level of national political power one might expect from that status.
New York, still the nation’s financial center, and Texas, California’s chief cultural and economic rival, have been much more successful in projecting themselves nationally.
That’s been especially true in presidential politics.
New Yorker Donald Trump sits in the White House, having defeated New Yorker Hillary Clinton three years ago. The Bush family from Texas won the presidency three times in the last three decades. But California hasn’t produced a viable presidential candidate in nearly four decades.
In recent years, presidential hopefuls from both parties have treated California like a political ATM machine, tapping into the state’s moneyed elite, but only rarely campaigning here.
The state’s politicians, miffed at being ignored, are trying to become important presidential players by advancing the state’s presidential primary from June to March, but while it has generated more face time, it’s still uncertain whether California’s early primary and its rich trove of Democratic convention delegates will play a decisive role.
Three Californians Made It to the White House in the 20th Century
One who hopes it does is Kamala Harris, California’s first-term junior senator, who is struggling to survive in the cast-of-thousands field of Democratic presidential hopefuls, and is counting on a big win in her home state seven months hence.
However, after making an early splash, her prospects have become cloudy and she could join the list of Californians whose presidential ambitions have faltered.
The list begins with explorer-soldier John Fremont, who was one of the state’s first two senators upon its being admitted to the union in 1850 and was the Republican Party’s first presidential candidate in 1856.
Three Californians made it to the White House in the 20th century – Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, all Republicans. But other Californians failed to make it, such as Earl Warren, Jerry Brown (who ran three times), Alan Cranston, Pete Wilson and Eric Garcetti. And several others with ambitions stopped short of actually running, such as Hiram Johnson, Pat Brown and William Knowland.
So can Harris break what is almost a jinx?
At the moment, Harris’ candidacy appears to be, as a lengthy Sacramento Bee analysis puts it, “stuck in neutral.”
Harris Now Finds Herself Sliding in the Polls
Throughout her political career, Harris has skated by on her resume and mediagenic personality, but has been averse to political risk – reminiscent of former Gov. Gray Davis’ penchant for ducking difficult, no-win issues.
Davis learned the hard way that risk aversion is the riskiest political approach when voters recalled him in 2003 for bollixing energy and budget crises. Harris may be getting the same lesson as she tries to tiptoe through the space between the Democratic establishment, personified by former Vice President Joe Biden, and the party’s noisy left wingers, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Having once been the Democratic flavor of the week, Harris now finds herself sliding in the polls into the second tier of candidates and is in danger of not making the cut when the large field is winnowed down to a half-dozen or so finalists.
Why the decline? As The Bee article points out, Harris’ ever-shifting positions, such as her muddied stance on “Medicare-for-all,” projects the image of someone who approaches politics with her manicured finger in the wind, lacking principle or consistency.
There’s still a long way to go, and Harris isn’t out of it. But at the moment, she’s more likely to join California’s list of presidential also-rans than its roster of presidents.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.