As a Republican in San Francisco, Jay Donde describes his experience in the liberal bastion as “frustrating.”
But that may soon change due to a quirk in how the state Republican Party awards delegates in presidential primaries. Donde and other GOP voters in liberal swaths like the Bay Area and Los Angeles could have a greater voice in picking their party’s presidential nominee in 2024 than their counterparts in the most conservative corners of the state, such as the Central Valley.
That’s because a GOP presidential candidate is awarded three delegates for every California congressional district that they win. It doesn’t matter if it’s former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco-based district, home to 29,150 registered Republicans, including Donde, or current House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s district centered in Bakersfield, where 205,738 GOP voters live.
“It’s exciting,” said Donde, 39, an attorney and co-founder of the San Francisco Briones Society, an organization of centrist Republicans, moderates and independents. “Not a lot of Republican voters in California realize the state is going to have such an important role in potentially selecting the next nominee for the Republican Party.”
While the GOP’s presidential delegate-allocation system in California has been in place for nearly two decades, it’s poised to make an impact next year, largely because the state’s primary is taking place early, on March 5, and there is an open race for the Republican nomination.
“We’re a very delegate-rich state,” said Jessica Millan Patterson, the chairperson of the state Republican Party. “An incredibly blue [congressional] seat in Los Angeles or San Francisco has just as many delegates as a strong Republican seat in” other parts of the state.
With 169 delegates, California has the most of any state in the nation and nearly all are awarded by congressional district. Candidates need just over 1,230 delegates nationwide to win the party nomination.
If a candidate wins less than one-fifth of California’s 52 congressional districts, that’s still a larger cache of delegates than if he or she wins several other states. New Hampshire, which receives an inordinate amount of media and campaign attention because it traditionally holds the first primary in the nation, has a total of 22 delegates.
“If you can come in California and carve out a couple media markets where you can spend a lot of money or you can put together a lot of volunteers and get a [small number of] Republican votes in overwhelmingly Democratic congressional districts, you have a great shot to pick up delegates,” said former GOP chairman Jim Brulte. “And if you get 15 or 20 or 30 delegates from California, that’s more delegates than some other states have.”
The Republican voter registration in 20 of the state’s 52 congressional districts is 20% or less; none have 50%, according to the secretary of state’s office. Statewide, Republicans make up 24% of the electorate, Democrats 47% and voters who express no party preference 22%.
Historically, the statewide winner received all of California’s delegates, resulting in few competitive races because of the expense of campaigning in such a vast state with some of the most expensive media markets in the country. Candidates frequently visit to fundraise from the large number of wealthy donors who live here.
“Nobody came here to campaign,” Brulte said. “They brought their vacuum cleaners and they sucked out all the money.”
A quarter-century ago, conservatives hoping to make the state more competitive and attractive for Republican presidential candidates proposed drastically overhauling the primary system, awarding three delegates per congressional district. Another 13 delegates would be awarded proportionally based on statewide results.
“I wanted to get California more in play, and I felt winner-take-all was a drag on that,” said Mike Schroeder, a state party leader when he launched the effort to change delegate-allocation rules. “I thought if we created a situation where even if you couldn’t win the whole state, you could get a reward for winning part of it, that would have the effect of putting California in play.”
An additional bonus in a state in the midst of dramatic demographic changes was that this move could prompt Republicans to reach out to voters in communities they had traditionally ignored, Schroeder said.
“It created a reason to do it,” he said. “It’s almost like a mayor’s race, where you have to learn how to go into each one of these neighborhoods. You could also call every voter for much less than TV” advertising.
Though the effort was first proposed in 1998, supporters of then-GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush — including Brulte, a legislative leader who was a co-chair of Bush’s California campaign — balked because the then-Texas governor was widely expected to win the 2000 state GOP primary, and such a rule change could dampen his delegate lead.
They were successful: The new delegate allocation rules did not take effect until 2004. And it has largely not been tested since then because the nomination races were largely settled before the California primary — there was an incumbent Republican president, a candidate had a commanding lead or the primary was scheduled so late that the nominee had effectively been selected.
“But now, for the first time, I think California truly is in play,” Schroeder said.
However, he said a key question was whether the East Coast political consultants who typically lead White House campaigns and are schooled in the weeds of delegate rules in early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire but unfamiliar with California’s bylaws would organize in time. If so, their candidates could be rewarded with “a huge haul” of delegates, Schroeder said.
No 2024 candidate is actively employing this strategy yet — their visits to California to date have focused on meeting donors and power brokers, and making appearances at prominent GOP venues such as the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley. The party’s second presidential primary debate will take place there later this year, though former President Trump has implied on social media that he may not participate because Fred Ryan, the chairman of the library and Reagan’s former chief of staff, is publisher of the Washington Post.
But state party officials and Republican strategists say they have received inquiries about the delegate-allocation process from the campaigns of Trump and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, as well as a likely candidate who they declined to name because this person has not officially announced a run.
Spokespeople for the Trump and Haley campaigns did not respond to requests for comment.
Nevertheless, Republicans who live in the state’s most liberal areas are excited by the prospect of being courted by White House hopefuls.
“If someone actually employs that strategy, it would be a nice bone to throw to long-suffering San Francisco Republicans,” said John Dennis, the chairman of the city’s GOP.