Jason Walsh: California primary should matter

“A sun-kissed miss said, ‘Don’t be late!’”

That’s a line from Al Jolson’s “California Here I Come,” sometimes called the unofficial state song of California.

But “late” is precisely the problem in California presidential politics these days – and it’s why applicants for residency at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. haven’t sang “here I come” to the Golden State for years.

Outside of off-the-radar, deep-pocket fundraising events, folks vying for the White House have had little reason to kiss babies in California since 2005, when state legislators moved the primary from March back to June, largely because a shorter general-election season – meaning the time between the primary and the November grand finale – was good for, well, state legislators. After all, a shorter, five-month general election season meant less campaigning and less fundraising (read: less work) for incumbents in Sacto. Sadly, such navel gazing by state politicos was anything but a good thing for California voters – or the country as a whole – when such a late-season primary rendered the most diverse electorate and largest state economy in the nation an afterthought in the last three races for the presidency. Let’s face it: By June, presidential frontrunners are basically steamrolling their way toward a nomination, and whatever the states that haven’t yet held their primary have to say about it pretty much doesn’t matter.

Which is why it was encouraging this week to see California Secretary of State Alex Padilla announce a proposal to kick the state primary up toward the front of the calendar.

Senate Bill 568 is authored by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) and would return the state’s 2020 presidential primary to March, making it the third primary following the traditionally first two state votes, the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. It would without a doubt make California a major player – perhaps the major player – in winnowing down the primary frontrunners, maybe even shaping the outcome of the primaries themselves.

And in the event an early California primary spurred other states – who seem to realize the importance of early primaries more than our state leaders have in recent years – to leapfrog their elections back in front of ours, SB 568 would also authorize the governor to move California’s primary even earlier.

How different would the 2016 presidential race have been if Californians had voted last year in late February with seemingly more moderate Republican candidates’ campaigns still viable? Would Bernie Sanders strong support in California rendered Hillary Clinton’s candidacy less inevitable? Who knows? But one thing we do know – the June primary mattered zilch.

Additionally, with 19 million-plus voters at stake in a state dominated by progressive Democrats on the one hand and moderate Republicans on the other, how much would the campaign dialogue have shifted, especially on the GOP side, if wooing women, Latino and socially liberal conservatives was an imperative? No doubt Jeb Bush would have liked to have found out.

Ever since inauguration day, state lawmakers have declared open opposition to a slew of Trump administration policies, drawing metaphoric lines in the sand about possible rollbacks of environmental protections, construction of a border wall and undocumented immigration crackdowns.

Well, SB 568, though it might inconvenience campaign-weary legislators, would be a chance to draw a truly substantive line – only this one would be on the calendar.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.