A Senate race without precedent — and with broad implications

By Anne C. Mulkern | 06/21/2016 07:00 AM EDT

For the first time in California history, two Democrats are battling each other to win a U.S. Senate seat.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris (left) and Rep. Loretta Sanchez at a California Senate debate earlier this year, with Republican George

California Attorney General Kamala Harris (left) and Rep. Loretta Sanchez at a California Senate debate earlier this year, with Republican George "Duf" Sundheim between them. Harris and Sanchez have advanced to the general election -- the first time two Democrats are facing off in a statewide general election since California changed its primary election system in 2011. Photo courtesy of AP Images.

For the first time in California history, two Democrats are battling each other to win a U.S. Senate seat.

The race pitting state Attorney General Kamala Harris (D) against Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D) likely will cost tens of millions of dollars, analysts said. It’s also likely to illuminate schisms within the political party that dominates California politics.

Harris and Sanchez go head to head after finishing first and second, respectively, in California’s primary earlier this month. Under state election rules, the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party. That system started in 2011 but until now has only affected local contests. This race marks the first time two members of the same party will compete in November for a statewide office.


Some analysts see Harris as having big advantages in the quest for the seat held by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), who’s retiring after four terms. The attorney general in the primary garnered 40.8 percent of the vote to Sanchez’s 18.3 percent. Former state Republican Party Chairman George "Duf" Sundheim came in third with 8.1 percent. There were 34 total candidates.

But Sanchez shouldn’t be counted out, said Garry South, a Democratic strategist. The fall electorate is likely to be much larger and more diverse when it comes to age, ethnicity and political views.

"To put a marker on this race really is difficult to do at this time because this is unchartered territory" with two Democrats facing off, South said. "How it all is going to shake out remains to be seen because we’ve never before in California been in a situation like this."

The race has historic implications. Sanchez, if elected, would be the first Latina senator. Harris is African-American and Asian-American. If she wins, Harris would be the second female African-American senator, after former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.).

Two of the strongest constituent groups in the Democratic Party are African-Americans and Latinos, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. Latinos are a bigger share of the California electorate and are expected to gain political strength as the population of eligible voters grows.

Latinos represented about 24 percent of likely voters before the primary, according to Political Data Inc., a nonpartisan group that analyzes voting records. More are likely to register before the general election, said Paul Mitchell, vice president of the company.

African-Americans constitute about 4 percent of the likely voters before the primary while Asian-Americans made up 9 percent. Whites represented about 60 percent.

Traditionally, however, Latinos haven’t turned out to vote as reliably as other groups, analysts said.

"Latinos in California have not voted proportionate to their strength in the population itself," South said. "With a Latina running, I do think it has the ability to help spike Latino turnout."

But there have been exceptions, South said. When Antonio Villaraigosa (D) ran for Los Angeles mayor in 2004, Latino voter turnout spiked because there was the chance to elect the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles, South said. Villaraigosa won that year and in 2008.

A general election restart?

Sean Clegg, adviser to the Harris campaign, said the primary showed her dominance. She won 50 of 58 counties, he said, including "virtually all of the Republican counties."

"The overwhelming evidence is that Kamala won every region," Clegg said. "She won Southern California. She won Northern California." In the counties Sanchez won, he said, "it’s only by a whisker."

Luis Vizcaino, spokesman for Sanchez’s campaign, said she’s ready for the general election fight.

"The Sanchez Campaign’s mission for the Primary was to get into the November run-off for US Senate and to stop the insider elite’s attempt to coronate Kamala Harris," he said in an email. "We succeeded. Now we turn our attention to winning in November, which will be an entirely new election based on the numbers."

He said Sanchez will be helped by the fact that "unlike the June Primary, the November election will present a clear choice, not a puzzling two-page list of names."

The primary saw about 8 million voters turn out. The general election could see 15 million or more voters, Mitchell said. There was a voter registration surge this spring, with a record 18 million people registering before the primary. The presidential election is likely to draw younger voters, more Latinos and others who didn’t show for the primary, analysts said.

"There will be so many people voting in November that weren’t interested in the primary," Sonenshein said. "Neither campaign knows what’s going to happen until that happens."

New poll has Harris in front

In a University of Southern California, Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll released last week, 43 percent of voters picked Harris compared with Sanchez’s 24 percent. Another 28 percent said they wouldn’t vote.

The June 7-10 survey talked to 1,553 registered voters and had a 3-percentage-point margin of error.

Tony Quinn, an analyst with the California Target Book, a political tip sheet, said he wouldn’t be surprised if a large portion of that 28 percent ignored the Senate contest when filling out its ballots.

"I think there will be a large number of Republicans that will just skip the race," he said.

Others said there will be a push by both candidates to attract Republicans and No Party Preference (NPP) voters. That’s a California category for those who decline to affiliate with a political party. Some GOP members might want a say in the contest, and independent expenditure groups also could weigh in.

"Because these is no Republican in this race, they well may opt to come in for the moderate of the two, which is Loretta Sanchez," South said.

Harris’ campaign rejected the notion that Sanchez can attract Republican votes, especially as she courts Latino voters.

"You can’t excite Latinos and appeal to Donald Trump voters at the same time," Clegg said.

Sonenshein, however, said that Sanchez can separately seek votes from GOP voters and Latinos. "That’s different from saying Latinos and Republicans will form a coalition" to support Sanchez, he added.

Harris intends to fight for the Latino vote, Clegg said. He cited exit polling data from Political Data as evidence there’s Latino support for Harris. That survey of voters who mailed in their ballots showed that Latinos voted 39 percent for Harris and 35 percent for Sanchez.

Roughly 81 percent of African-American voters, 59 percent of Asian and 53 percent of white voters also picked Harris in that exit poll.

"If we’re successful as we have been in the primary winning Latino support, the math becomes impossible for Loretta," Clegg said.

Mitchell with Political Data cautioned that the mail-in ballots represent a small part of the electorate. It will take about a month to fully analyze primary data and know how much support each woman received from each group of voters.

"Some of this unpacking could help us understand the starting line" for each campaign, Mitchell said.

North versus South

Democrats control the California Legislature and hold every statewide office, but there are splits within the party that the race could highlight, Sonenshein said.

More people live in Southern California, but voters turn out more strongly in Northern California. Most statewide officeholders right now are from the larger Northern California area.

Southern California "feels to some degree left out," Democratic strategist South said. "San Francisco politicians have dominated the state so much."

Harris is from San Francisco. She served two terms as San Francisco’s district attorney before winning the attorney general job in 2010. She started out working in the Alameda County district attorney’s office, which is also in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Sanchez represents a congressional district in Orange County, south of Los Angeles. She won her seat in 1996 after defeating conservative stalwart Rep. Bob Dornan (R), known as "B-1 Bob."

"It’s kind of logical for Sanchez to try to get Southern California motivated," Sonenshein said.

There are also more Latinos in Southern California than there are in the northern part of the state, he said. Sanchez won her House seat in 1996 in part after her campaign drove Latino voters to the polls.

Clegg, adviser to the Harris campaign, said that Harris right now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Douglas Emhoff. He is managing director of the West Coast at the Venable LLP law firm.

Coast versus inland

The other split in Democratic Party voters is between those who live on the coast and tend to be more liberal, and inland residents who typically are more conservative, analysts said.

Republicans dominate local offices in the Bakersfield and Kern County areas, said Mark Martinez, chairman of the political science department at California State University, Bakersfield. The oil industry and agriculture are big businesses in the region, and there’s a desire to protect those for economic reasons and to support a "cowboy culture" that prizes rugged individualism.

Martinez said it’s hard to forecast whom voters in the region will favor in the Senate race. About half the voters in Kern County and Bakersfield are Latino, he said, and might back Sanchez.

"It’s going to be tied to the last name for a lot of people," Martinez said. "She’ll get a lot of votes because of that."

But, he said, as with other parts of the state, Latinos in the Central Valley don’t turn out to vote as well as other ethnic groups. Having presumed Republican presidential nominee Trump on the ballot might change that, he said, given Trump’s statements against Mexicans who’ve immigrated illegally.

Central Valley Republicans might see Harris as the more conservative option because, as attorney general, she’s in a law enforcement job, he said.

Martinez said he would be surprised, however, to see either candidate fight for Central Valley votes.

"What usually you see is candidates for the U.S. Senate, they don’t normally come to the Central Valley," Martinez said. Winning is based on San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Jose, he said, because "they’ve got the votes and they’ve got the money."

Democratic Party picked Harris

Harris has the backing of the California Democratic Party and an endorsement from Gov. Jerry Brown (D). The attorney general job has proved a good launching post for higher office, said Quinn with the California Target Book.

Brown was California attorney general when he ran for governor in 2010. Former Gov. George Deukmejian (R), in office from 1983 to 1991, was also attorney general when he sought the governor’s mansion. The late Earl Warren (R) was attorney general, then governor and later was chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sanchez will need to work to get her name out among voters, analysts said. Ads that Sanchez ran before the primary promoted her "senior membership" on the House Armed Services and Homeland Security committees, and that she voted against the Iraq War and Wall Street bailout. She also voted against the Patriot Act, Vizcaino said.

"Loretta has 20 years in the Armed Services Committee," Vizcaino said. "She knows the military leaders in the United States and around the world. She’s traveled to Iraq. She’s traveled to Afghanistan. … Loretta has a clear understanding of what it takes to keep America and Americans safe not only here, but abroad."

Harris was endorsed by the Sierra Club. Her campaign website lists several environmental issues among her concerns, including renewable energy jobs, addressing climate change, water, and land preservation. As attorney general she’s filed a lawsuit seeking penalties for the record-setting methane gas leak in Los Angeles and is investigating whether Exxon Mobil Corp. misled the public on climate change.

"Kamala Harris has a demonstrated record of getting things done to protect California’s environment, from defending our landmark laws against climate change to taking on big oil companies violating hazardous waste laws," Clegg said in an email. "Kamala Harris believes California’s next Senator needs to carry the torch of leadership passed down from Barbara Boxer and Alan Cranston and be a bold national voice for environmental protection."

Sanchez’s campaign website doesn’t include the environment among her top issues. Vizcaino said that Sanchez "has been on the front lines pushing for environmental protections" and that she has high ratings on scorecards from environmental groups. She has an 89 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters.

She’s also been active on environmental justice issues, Vizcaino said. Sanchez has urged help for residents of southeast Los Angeles County who are suffering health effects because a company there, Exide Technologies, did not properly dispose of toxic chemicals when it operated a lead-acid battery recycling facility.

"We do not just look at Porter Ranch," he said, referring to the moderately affluent neighborhood affected by the methane leak. "On the other side of town, residents have had to go through decades of problems."

On energy and environment issues, some analysts said voters might not see much difference between the candidates.

"California is such a green state and is such a blue state, any Democrat in California is going to be very sensitive on the environment," South said. "This is not even open for debate in California."

Finding donors with 2 Democrats competing

Another variable that could influence the race’s outcome, analysts said, is how much money candidates can raise and how much outside groups get involved. Races in California are costly because the state is so large and television airtime is pricey. When Brown ran for governor in 2010 against former eBay Inc. CEO Meg Whitman (R), she spent $160 million.

Boxer that same year spent $29 million to defend her seat against challenger Carly Fiorina (R), former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Co.

To reach all the voters expected to show up for the general election "in all likelihood will cost tens of millions of dollars," said Dan Schnur, director of USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics and a former Republican strategist. But having two Democrats in the race could hurt their ability to raise money.

"One of the biggest challenges for both of them is going to be convincing [donors] to give money when both of them are Democrats," Schnur said. Some donors’ inclination will be to give money in competitive races with Republicans, he said.

"Harris has already demonstrated the ability to raise money in very large amounts. It’s worth assuming she’ll be able to continue that in the fall," Schnur said. "The challenge is probably greater for Sanchez."

At the end of May, Sanchez had raised about $2.2 million and had $1.3 million on hand, according to the Federal Election Commission. Vizcaino, spokesman for Sanchez’s campaign, said they can take on the money challenge.

"Both candidates have five months to raise the funds needed to win this election," he said. "The Harris campaign has blown millions on their failed anti-Sanchez strategy. Now, we must expand our fundraising with support from old and new friends."

Harris at the end of May had raised $10.3 million and had $4.7 million left. Clegg, adviser to the Harris campaign, said the candidate at the end of this month will file a report that will show one of her best fundraising quarters to date. He said that the majority of people the candidate has received money from gave funds for the primary, with only $2.3 million earmarked for the general election, he said.

That means the Harris campaign has a "pool of people we can go back to" for an additional $10 million, Clegg said.