Battleground OC: Get Ready for the GOP Primary Circus to Come to Town

Now that it’s almost certain California will be crucial in determining whether Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump wins enough delegates to claim the nomination before the party’s July convention, its time to start focusing on how things will work and the role Orange County will play.

First, the basics: California is the nation’s largest delegate prize, with 172 at stake when voters go to the polls on June 7. Four other states (New Jersey, New Mexico, Montana and South Dakota) are also holding primaries or caucuses that day, so it is unlikely Trump will have the 1,237 delegates needed to claim the nomination coming into that final super Tuesday.

And if he ends the day below the magic number, it’d mark the first time the leading Republican candidate entered the convention without enough delegates to secure the nomination since 1976, and it could mean the first truly contested GOP convention since 1952.

So the process by which California Republicans award delegates, and who those people are, will likely go from an arcane exercise that is of interest to only the most hopeless political junkies, to front-page news.

How Delegate Selection Works

For both parties, the primary election process hinges on California’s 53 congressional districts, although they use different systems for selecting delegates.

Here are key things to consider on the Republican side:

  • The state party runs a closed primary, which is important because Democrats and decline-to-state voters make up two-thirds of the California electorate. This could be both good and bad for Trump. Good because the anti-Trump forces won’t be able to recruit independents and Democrats to cross over and vote against him. Bad because millions of voters who might be inclined to jump on the Trump bandwagon won’t be able to.
  • Of the 172 delegates, 10 are awarded to the candidate who wins the popular vote and three include high-ranking party officials. The other 159 are awarded to the top vote getter in each congressional district.
  • Each congressional district awards three delegates; no matter how many Republicans live there. For example, only 27,000 Republicans live in California’s 13th Congressional District in Alameda County. But whoever wins there gets three delegates just like the winner in Republican Dana Rohrabacher’s 48th Congressional District, which spans the Orange County coast and is home to 164,919 Republicans. This means candidates generally will have to campaign statewide and not be able to just focus on stronger Republican areas. That being said, more than half of the congressional districts are south of the Tehachapi mountains, so expect a lot of campaigning in SoCal.
  • The delegates must be Republicans who live in the congressional district they will represent, and are chosen by the candidates, rather than by party leaders as they are in some other states. Also, under state law, the congressional district delegates must support the winner at least through the second convention ballot, with a few exceptions. This means California Republican delegates will both by law, and likely by choice, be more loyal to their candidate in a contested convention than perhaps delegates from some other states. This helps Trump given that the only realistic paths to the nomination for Ted Cruz and John Kasich rely on delegates changing their votes during the convention.

As things stand now, it is likely Hillary Clinton will have the nomination wrapped up by the time Californians vote on June 7. But being that this is 2016, the year conventional wisdom has been tossed out the window, we’ll also go over the important rules for the Dems, just in case.

Here they are:

  • California Democrats will send 546 delegates to their convention in Philadelphia the week of July 25. The total includes 476 “pledged” delegates and 70 delegates who don’t promise to vote for a specific candidate. These unpledged delegates are Gov. Jerry Brown, members of the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate and members of the Democratic National Committee.
  • Like Republicans, Democrats rely on winners of congressional districts to select delegates who promise to vote for the candidate who won in their district. But unlike Republicans, they aren’t legally bound to do so, according to a party spokesman. The Democratic primary is open to all voters, but only Democrats may be convention delegates.
  • Rather than have a set number of delegates for each congressional district, Democrats use a formula based on population and presidential voting from the 2008 and 2012 elections that allocates four to eight delegates per district. On top of the congressional district delegates, there are 106 at large delegates, selected from a statewide pool. At large candidates also must pledge to support a specific candidate.
  • Then there are slots for 53 Democratic party leaders and elected officials who must be the mayor of a major city, a statewide elected official, state legislator, including legislative leaders and other elected officials on the state, county and local level.
  • The 476 pledged delegates will be evenly divided between women and men and “the California Democratic Party’s delegate selection plan includes affirmative action goals to increase the diversity of the delegation by race, age, Native American status, and sexuality,” according to a party summary of its selection process.

Orange County’s Role

Because Orange County makes up all or part of seven congressional districts, county residents, if selected, could comprise as many as 21 of the 159 “pledged” Republican delegates.

That’s two more districts than San Diego County even though both counties have roughly the same population of three million. Los Angeles County, more than three times the size of Orange County, is the state’s biggest, accounting for all or parts of 18 Congressional districts.

“The special role that Orange County and Los Angeles County will have is that there are a lot of (congressional) districts,” said Harmeet Dhillon, Republican party vice chair.

However, its also safe to say the OC, long a center of Republican strength, will play a prominent role in the GOP campaigns because of fundraising.

For example, the Ted Cruz campaign will host a $1,000 per person fundraising luncheon at the Pacific Club in Newport Beach on Thursday, with “special guests” former candidates Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina. Hosts are Rohrabacher and his wife Rhonda.

The Cruz website lists the leaders of his California campaign, including his state co-chairman, Orange County resident Michael Schroeder, a former state GOP chairman as well as Rohrabacher and Assemblyman Matthew Harper (R-Huntington Beach).

You can contact Tracy Wood at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: @TracyVOC.