As California voters move closer to the general election, a new poll finds 25 percent of those surveyed remain undecided on the state's U.S. Senate race, a contest that's failed to break through the tidal wave of coverage for the presidential campaign.
Both Senate candidates — state Attorney General Kamala Harris and Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez — are Democrats and female and come from diverse backgrounds. Whoever wins in the November general election will make history for California and the nation.
Harris, whose mother is of South Asian descent and whose father grew up in Jamaica, would be the second black woman elected to the Senate while Sanchez would be among the first Latinas elected senator.
Following on the heels of Barbara Boxer's retirement announcement, the election will fill the state's first open Senate seat in two and a half decades.
Yet despite the high stakes, many voters remain undecided or unaware of the candidates in the race.
Unlike previous California Senate races, this year's contest is notable for its relative quiet. The candidates have rarely confronted each other on issues that generate wide interest and coverage.
Further narrowing the opportunities for voters to judge the two side-by-side, the candidates have come to agreement on only a single debate thus far, one scheduled for Oct. 5 in Los Angeles, although they disagree over who is to blame for this.
Harris previously accepted a September debate in Sacramento that Sanchez declined. On Tuesday, Sanchez announced she was challenging Harris to an additional three debates, but Harris' team said it's too late.
"As we've said for weeks, our campaign is done debating debates and has closed the door on new debate invitations," said Sean Clegg, Harris' campaign consultant.
That brought a swift response from Sanchez' campaign.
"What Kamala Harris is saying is that she is closing the door to California voters," said Luis Vizcaino, senior advisor to Sanchez' campaign. "Her refusal to participate in four statewide debates is the height of arrogance."
Results of a new poll released Wednesday show Harris running away with the race, capturing 51 percent support of those surveyed to Sanchez' 19 percent.
The survey sponsored by California Counts, a public media collaboration of KPCC, KQED, KPBS and Capital Public Radio, and conducted by CALSPEAKS at Sacramento State also found a quarter of those polled said they remain uncommitted. The poll is of all voting-age Californians, not likely voters.
During a visit last week to Los Angeles Southwest College, several registered voters who plan to vote in November told KPCC they hadn't heard of either Harris or Sanchez.
"It's something that I haven't really heard much about," said Anthony Barnes, a 25-year-old theater major at the school.
Barnes said he plans to vote for someone in the Senate race in November, but would need to learn about the two candidates. During the primary, he said he picked a candidate at random from the list of 34 Senate candidates.
"I think I was just moving through, in all honesty," he said.
Part of the information gap results from a presidential campaign that's upstaged all other elections. It's leaving many down ballot races lightly covered by comparison, and has moved some voters to seek out their own information.
Ted Green, a public affairs consultant, attended a Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce event last week featuring Sanchez to learn more about the candidate.
"I consider myself an undecided voter and I’m looking to be persuaded," he said.
Sanchez spoke to a crowd of several dozen chamber members. She highlighted her experience in Congress, particularly on national security issues, and her support for streamlining some government regulations. Both issues give her a chance to appeal to conservative voters in her search for support beyond her party's Democratic base.
She also spent a few minutes telling the crowd about the challenges and the costs she's encountering as she tries to build a unit in her backyard for her aging mother.
Then Sanchez fielded a question about recent news stories that she ducked out of a debate with Harris that was proposed for Sept. 20 in Sacramento.
Sanchez told the crowd she had other commitments on that day, but was willing to debate during the four other proposed times.
"I'm not afraid of debating. I would like four debates, you know. She put out: ‘I’m only taking these two.’ I said I’ve accepted four," she said.
With Harris leading in recent polls by wide margins, there’s little political incentive for the frontrunner to make herself widely available. Candidates who are probable winners often limit their exposure as part of their strategy.
During a campaign stop last week in South Los Angeles, Harris was asked whether voters have had enough opportunities to judge her and her opponent.
"Well, voters will make their decision, but I would say that it certainly is important that we do as much as we can to, to talk with Californians about this race," she said.
California Civic Engagement Project Director Mindy Romero said the information vacuum in the Senate race is unusual and fails to serve the electorate.
"A lack of debates or a smaller number of them is bad for voters," Romero said.
Back in 2010, when Boxer faced Republican Carly Fiorina, their heated clashes and debates generated wide coverage. The same was true when Boxer announced she was leaving her Senate seat; it spurred a flood of news stories and conversations about who would run to replace her.
The campaign that followed hasn’t generated similar excitement. Romero believes that adds up to a knowledge gap among voters and diminishes their connection to the democratic process.
"When voters don’t have information or there's a perception that they aren't getting that information or they're not getting it from trusted sources, then it does affect their engagement in the election and that’s not a good thing," she said.
The California Democratic Party's endorsement of Harris and her high-profile backing by the likes of President Obama and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have also alienated some Latino community leaders.
"Your typical, your average Latino voter again may not know those kind of dynamics that are taking place, but among political elites, among Latino leaders, they're closely paying attention," said Adrian Pantoja, a professor of political studies at Pitzer College and a senior analyst at the public opinion polling firm Latino Decisions. "They're eager to get that recognition. They're eager to have Latinos and Latinas in high positions of power."
Some feel the aura of anointment surrounding Harris has precluded an open and robust campaign, leaving some feeling disenfranchised.
In South Los Angeles, outreach worker Matthew Vu sees the lack of information about the election play out up close and personal. He’s registered about 100 people to vote this year and said he runs into many who are turned off by the vitriolic presidential race, so he tries to steer them to other races.
"What I’m trying to get people to focus on is that the election is much more than just the presidential election," he said.
Still, Vu said it's hard to connect the U.S. Senate race to the problems that people face daily in communities like South L.A.
"A lot of people out here are, you know, just living day-to-day — you know, surviving" and living from pay check to pay check, he said.
This story has been updated.
To find more information on the candidates, including where they stand on issues, check out our Voter's Edge Guide, a collaboration of California Counts, MapLight and the League of Women Voters' of California Education Fund.
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