From left, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt… (Wire images )
California voters will play a nominal role in the presidential campaign. But a steady stream of candidates is circling the state, wooing wealthy donors who will probably spend well over $100 million on the 2012 election.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on Thursday finished a three-day, five-city swing, picking up checks from GOP lawmakers at a luncheon in Sacramento, tech titans at a barbecue in a tony Silicon Valley enclave, and moneyed Republicans at events in Southern California. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman will hold four events on Sunday and Monday, ending with a dinner at the upscale Island Hotel in Newport Beach. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty also recently visited the state.
"They're coming here because they're smart. California is home to the largest Republican donor base upon the planet, and any well-organized candidate who's going to work to raise money must include California," said Ron Nehring, former chairman of the state GOP.
Many candidates are more focused on donors than voters at the moment, as the fundraising quarter ticks to a close June 30, and candidates seek to demonstrate their fiscal might in disclosure reports. It's not limited to one side of the aisle: In recent weeks, President Obama and his wife, Michelle, headlined star-studded fundraisers here.
But while donors who commit to candidates will be able to commune with them in intimate settings, the average Californian won't — a byproduct of two political realities. The state's Democratic tilt puts it safely in Obama's column in 2012. And California's primary will probably take place after the GOP nominee has been selected; in a cost-cutting move, the state will almost certainly hold its primary in June 2012.
It's a contrast from 2008, when there were competitive February primaries for both major parties. Though the state's importance was somewhat diluted because more than 20 states voted on the same day, candidates nonetheless visited, held rallies and mingled with voters.
Then, too, candidates were heatedly battling for donors. This year, those efforts are less frenzied so far.
"Four years ago, you had a full-on war going on … by this time. I don't think there's been an official fundraiser in Orange County yet," Scott Baugh, the county GOP chairman, said earlier this month.
Some say the slower pace is evidence that some large contributors are not excited about the Republican field, a complaint also heard among GOP donors nationally.
"A majority of donors are sitting on the sidelines," said Jeff Miller, the former volunteer finance chairman for the state GOP who raised more than $60 million for the party in recent years, and who is not committed to a candidate. Miller said he believes donors are looking for a candidate like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is considering a run. "They're hungry for someone to come out there and get them excited."
Among the donors who have committed, Romney — the early front-runner — has a clear edge. Because of his unsuccessful run four years ago, when he raised $8 million in California, he has a ready-made network of wealthy supporters.
His state finance committee includes hundreds of donors, among them failed gubernatorial candidate and billionaire Meg Whitman, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy, prominent homebuilder William Lyon, and Tony Pritzker (whose sister Penny was the 2008 national finance chairwoman of President Obama's campaign). Some, such as former MGM Studios Chairman Harry E. Sloan, who was one of the hosts of a Los Angeles dinner for Romney on Wednesday, are new to his team. Sloan supported McCain in 2008.
"It's not an accident that Republicans tend to nominate a candidate who has run in the past. When you run and finish second, you develop a network of contributors across the country, and that gives you a head start over those doing this for the first time," said Dan Schnur, director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics and a former GOP operative.
Given the donor community in California, Schnur said, the candidates coming to California are those who have "closer ties to the Washington political establishment," as opposed to insurgent candidates such as Rep. Michele Bachmann or former Sen. Rick Santorum, who are likely to lean heavily on small donations from excited supporters.
"Someone who gets excited enough to make a small online contribution after seeing Bachmann or Santorum on cable TV is a different type of donor than one who wants to sit down at a private dinner to decide whether to commit to raising tens of thousands of dollars," he said.