Bernie backers fight to take over California Democrats

Bernie backers fight to take over California Democrats
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Last weekend, the Sacramento Convention Center hosted a statewide volleyball tournament. This weekend, it will host the next battle in the war over the future of the Democratic Party.

More than 3,000 delegates from across the Golden State will parachute into Sacramento in coming days to hear from candidates running for an open gubernatorial seat, a handful of statewide offices and to elect a new party chairman.

Forces loyal to Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWATCH LIVE: Senate Dems hold ‘People’s Filibuster’ against ObamaCare repeal OPINION: Destroy McConnellCare, RyanCare and TrumpCare travesties Dems face identity crisis MORE (I-Vt.) see the race to replace outgoing Chairman John Burton as a chance to take over the best-funded, best-organized state party in the nation ahead of the 2020 presidential contest.

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Our Revolution, the outgrowth of Sanders's 2016 presidential campaign, and the California Nurses Association, the most prominent outside group that spent on Sanders's behalf last year, both back Kimberly Ellis, a professional organizer from the Bay Area who has spent the last two years running for chair.

Most of California's political elite, including 30 labor unions and the vast majority of the state Senate, supports Eric Bauman, the current vice chairman of the state party and head of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. 

Neither candidate loves the idea that the race is a proxy fight between the Sanders and Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonClinton praises ‘Harry Potter’ series CNN to air 'The Russian Connection: Inside the Attack on Democracy' Tuesday night Did Democrats really have Georgia on their minds? MORE wings of the Democratic Party.

Both candidates backed Clinton in the 2016 primary, and both have supporters in each camp. Both supported Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Sanders’s choice to lead the Democratic National Committee, in February. (Ellison lost to former Labor Secretary Tom Perez.)

But it is a frame others have embraced as the Democratic Party strives to find a path back to power.

“What is happening at the national level has spilled over here,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire (D), a Bauman backer. “You have very similar sides lining up as you did in the Democratic primary.”

The internecine fight has delegates and elected officials walking on eggshells, fearful of alienating either the established wing of the party with a proven history of raising money and mobilizing supporters or the progressive wing that has harnessed the enthusiasm Sanders brought to the campaign trail. 

Gavin Newsom, the state's lieutenant governor and the front-runner in the race to replace Gov. Jerry Brown (D), has endorsed both Bauman and Ellis.

“This is going to be a contentious weekend,” predicted state Sen. Toni Atkins (D), a former Assembly Speaker who backs Bauman. “There is a progressive end in our party pushing to upend the status quo.”

Ellis has cast herself as the embodiment of a new and different direction for California Democrats after years under more established figures. Bauman has not embraced the establishment label, but his support from labor and elected officials has let Ellis paint him as the status quo.

The differences between Bauman and Ellis are minor: Ellis has told delegates she would refuse contributions from the pharmaceutical, oil and tobacco industries. Bauman wants to start an in-state think tank meant to advance progressive ideas.

But what is most telling is that, even while both candidates backed Clinton, who beat Sanders by 7 points in the state’s 2016 primary, they have freely adopted Sanders’s platform. Both back raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and both support a single-payer healthcare system, currently being debated by California’s Democrat-dominated legislature.

The race will be decided by about 3,300 delegates who have won the right to vote. About a third were elected at caucuses in state assembly districts in January, where longtime Democratic Party stalwarts were stunned by the number of Sanders supporters who showed up to run for, and win, delegate slots. 

Another third are controlled by party leaders and elected officials, the majority of whom back Bauman. 

The final third was elected through county party organizations, where both sides claim victories: Bauman won 94 percent of the vote among his hometown Los Angeles County members, who make up nearly a quarter of the total vote. Ellis has recruited new candidates in northern rural counties, where Democrats have not always been present in recent years.

“In very few things in life can you affect what the electorate looks like,” said Joe Macaluso, who works for Ellis. “We actually can influence who’s in the delegation.”

Bauman's camp claims it has commitments from more than half the delegates, enough to win the race outright, said Dave Jacobson, Bauman's lead strategist. Macaluso said Ellis “absolutely” has the numbers necessary to win.

Strategists watching the race say a win this weekend will come down to each side’s whip operation. Though 3,300 delegates will show up in Sacramento, the number who actually stand in line to vote may not be as high. Both Ellis backers and Bauman supporters say they have created the mechanics necessary to get their voters to the polls located throughout the convention center.

“This is all going to come down to a mobilizing effort and an organization effort,” Jacobson said. “We feel extremely confident in our operation and in our mobilization efforts.”

“Our whip program has been running for two months,” Macaluso said. “And we’re not whipping undecided votes, we’re making sure our voters are in line.”