scorecardresearch Skip to main content

As candidates descend on California, Kamala Harris struggles to defend her home turf

Senator Kamala Harris (right) was greeted warmly by convention delegates on Saturday in San Francisco, as was Senator Elizabeth Warren.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press photos

OAKLAND, Calif. — Senator Elizabeth Warren attracted the largest crowd of her presidential campaign so far Friday night in an unusual location — the hometown of rival Senator Kamala Harris.

“Hello, Oakland!” a buoyant Warren shouted to an estimated 6,500 people packed into a soccer field, her arm pumping into the chilly air. “I’m Elizabeth Warren, I’m running for president, and I have a plan for that!”

The crowd for Warren’s speech — as well as those at the many other well-attended glitzy fund-raisers and campaign events held by other Democratic candidates in the Bay Area this weekend — sent a clear message to Harris, the state’s junior senator: Her home state is still very much up for grabs as her campaign for the Democratic nomination has yet to take off.


Across the bay, more than a dozen presidential candidates descended on downtown San Francisco to pitch themselves to what California Representative Barbara Lee called the “wokest Democrats in the country” at the state’s annual party convention. Harris’s many rivals wooed California’s hordes of enthusiastic Democrats and deep-pocketed donors in the days before and after the gathering, fighting to poach her support.

Several people at Warren’s rally said they had gravitated to the Massachusetts senator in recent weeks after souring on Harris.

“I really wanted to support her,” said Jennifer Zilliac, a nanny. “I’m an Oaklander and I really wanted to support a woman of color. But I’m just not getting the feeling from her that she wants systemic change.”

California, which awards more than three times as many delegates as three of the early voting states — Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina — combined, has moved its 2020 primary up to early March, making it an even more coveted prize for the many Democrats vying for the nomination.


Winning her home state is a key part of Harris’s strategy, and she has locked down dozens of endorsements, including that of the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom. She counts among her advisers the former president of the SEIU — one of the state’s largest unions and a key primary endorsement — and hired a California state director with ties to that organization as well.

Perhaps most important, Harris has already won statewide office three times, which means California’s dauntingly large electorate is already familiar with her.

“Given how expensive the state is not only for advertising but for ground game, it’s an enormous advantage,” said Amanda Renteria, a former candidate for California governor and now chair of Emerge America, a group that encourages women to run for office.

Harris launched her presidential campaign in January with a formidable crowd of 20,000 less than 2 miles from where Warren railed against “freeloading billionaires” Friday. But since then, Harris has failed to catch fire in polls nationally and in California, where an April survey showed her 9 percentage points behind former vice president Joe Biden and 1 point behind Senator Bernie Sanders.

“I’ll leave that to the pundits,” Harris said when asked Saturday why she isn’t leading the polls in her own state. “I strongly believe based on my own experiences running for office that the only poll that matters is on election night.”

Delegates greeted Harris warmly Saturday as she walked the halls of the convention, an event she’s attended for years. And during her brief speech, they cheered when she called for impeaching President Trump. “I have relationships in this room that go back decades,” she told reporters. “And so it’s a homecoming of sorts.”


But the delegates clapped even louder for Warren’s fiery speech shortly afterward, arguing against political moderation. “Too many powerful people in our party say, ‘settle down, back up, there’s nothing to be angry about,’ ” she said, as dozens of delegates held up “California for Warren” signs. “Not me. I’m here to fight!”

Biden was one of the few candidates to skip the convention, which several Democratic strategists derided as a bad move. But the other front-runner in early California polls, Sanders, spent days on an intense spree of campaign events in California before his scheduled convention address Sunday.

Sanders’ campaign set up a “Bernie Lounge” for delegates to mingle with staff and announced eight new California hires, including regional directors overseeing wide swaths of the state. He’s attracted thousands of supporters at several recent rallies, an impressive showing that his campaign cochair, Bay Area Representative Ro Khanna, said surprised and encouraged the senator.

“There’s no doubt that Kamala Harris is a well-liked and well-respected senator from California, but I would argue that Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren all have as good a chance of winning the state as she does,” Khanna said.

Sanders also had encouraged his supporters in the 2016 California primary — which he lost by 7 percentage points to Hillary Clinton — to become involved in the Democratic Party.


“Thousands of Sanders’ grass-roots activists got elected as Democratic delegates,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a Democratic consultant who managed former California senator Barbara Boxer’s campaigns. Their enthusiasm was evident Saturday at the convention, where Sanders’ delegates held up an oil painting of him and chanted his name in the hallways.

Other candidates are also making inroads in California. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has been feted at swanky fund-raisers in Silicon Valley, thanks in part to connections he made as a Harvard undergraduate. And Warren, who unlike Sanders and Harris has no paid staffers in the state, has attracted some of the largest crowds of her campaign in California.

Some voters at Warren’s Oakland rally said they liked her focus on specific and sweeping policy changes but were also drawn to Harris.

“I’m always going back and forth,” said Molly Giesen-Field as she stood in a long line to take a photo with Warren after the rally. “I want a woman president and I want a woman with plans. Both of them I would be over the moon for.”

But despite signs of enthusiasm for Warren, making a dent in the state can be a daunting — and expensive — proposition, which makes Harris’s head start in name recognition all the more important. Harris also showed an early edge in the money race by raising $12 million in the first three months of this year, more than any candidate other than Sanders and double what Warren raised.


“We have more registered voters in California than we have people living in 46 states,” said Garry South, a veteran state Democratic consultant. “The scale is really hard for people to comprehend.”

Some candidates appear to be targeting less-popular areas to get a jump on the competition, with Buttigieg, for example, heading to Fresno for a meet-and-greet and town hall Monday. California’s delegates are doled out by congressional district, so candidates can focus on districts where they believe they have a shot at gaining the 15 percent threshold of the popular vote to win delegates.

“You’re already seeing candidates pick and choose where their base is,” Renteria said. “All these candidates are starting to build their own map.”

But every day candidates spend building support in California is a day away from other crucial early-state contests that precede its Super Tuesday primary.

“Nothing they do in California will help them in those four states other than raise money,” said Bob Mulholland, a Democratic National Committee member from California who is backing Harris.

He made a confident prediction: “If Kamala wins South Carolina, she wins California on March 3.”

But that won’t stop other candidates from trying. Warren, seemingly in awe of her crowd Friday night, sent her fans a message. “I’m coming back to Oakland!” she said.

Liz Goodwin can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.