California Counts

A collaboration between Capital Public Radio, KQED, KPCC and KPBS to cover the 2016 elections in California.

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Could A Republican Break Through In California's Senate Primary?

 Lisa Pickoff-White / KQED

Tom Del Beccaro, Duf Sundheim and Ron Unz (L-R), Republican candidates for Barbara Boxer's U.S. Senate seat.

Lisa Pickoff-White / KQED

On Tuesday, Californians will send two U.S. Senate candidates to the November general election. Under the state’s “Top Two” primary system, those candidates can be from any political party – but polls show two Democrats in the lead.

Of the 12 Republicans on Tuesday’s primary ballot, just three have drawn enough support to qualify for televised debates.

  • The conservative, former California Republican Party chair Tom Del Beccaro: "The most important thing we can do is grow the private sector. That’s why I have a flat tax that is sure to increase economic demand."
  • The moderate, Duf Sundheim, another former state party chair: “The minimum wage should be done as locally as possible. I think anybody that is working full-time in this state or in this country should not be living in poverty.”
  • The outsider, businessman Ron Unz: "I may not have ever held elected office, but I think I’ve accomplished more than all the other people on the platform with me."

None of them are cracking double digits in polls. And they all trail the two leading Democrats: Attorney General Kamala Harris and Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez.

“(The polls have) drowned out the Republican message to some degree, just because many people do not expect a Republican to necessarily make the runoff in November,” says GOP political consultant Mason Harrison.

But he says don’t rule out a Republican making the top two – because up to half of likely GOP primary voters are undecided. “I don’t believe that 50 percent of Republicans are gonna leave their ballots blank.”

And here, Harrison says, is where campaign tactics way under the radar could come into play: local party endorsements, voter guide statements, and slate mailers – those flyers you get in the mail with lists of recommended candidates.

“Although they may appear to be an endorsement from an organization, it’s actually a piece of mail that the candidates have actually paid to be on,” he says.

There’s also a late independent spending push from GOP megadonor Charles Munger, who’s backing Duf Sundheim.

If Republicans consolidate behind one candidate, it’s entirely possible that candidate could make the top two. But if they split their votes up, those chances drop significantly.