Amita Sharma | KPBS
California hasn’t had a U.S. Senate race without an incumbent running in nearly a quarter of a century. Political scientists say the contest to replace U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who is retiring, is the state’s most important race this election year.
“The Senate is a prize,” said UC San Diego political science professor Sam Popkin. “Any senator from California could be one of the lead people on all sorts of changes in prison reform and immigration, for example.”
Boxer, a Democrat, has held her seat for 24 years. She moved from committee to committee, climbing up the hierarchy and using her seniority to help California. She brought money home to build highways. She successfully sought refinancing help for homeowners during the mortgages crisis. And she secured funding for drought relief projects.
Voters rewarded Boxer with four terms. Thad Kousser, another UC San Diego political science professor, said a successor who can match Boxer's political prowess could last even longer.
“Especially if you’re one of these younger politicians who is running for this,” Kousser said. “You’re going to be a powerful, major figure in American politics for decades.”
State Democratic Party Picks Harris Over Sanchez
Electorate realities seem to ensure the seat will remain with the Democrats. In major statewide polls, no Republicans have been able to reach 10 percent support from likely voters.
The Democratic Party's pick is California Attorney General Kamala Harris. She was the first Democrat to enter the race just days after Boxer announced in January 2015 she wouldn’t seek a fifth term.
Harris is 51. Her father is a Jamaican immigrant who once taught economics at Stanford University. Her Indian mother was a breast cancer researcher and endocrinologist.
At a California Democratic Party meeting in February, she accused Republicans of wanting to turn back progress on civil rights.
“We, the people,” Harris said. “We understand our unity is our strength and our diversity is our power.”
Harris walked away with the state party’s endorsement, despite an impassioned plea from her closest rival — Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, 56.
“No other candidate is more qualified to fight and win for California,” Sanchez told the gathering.
She describes her platform for the Senate as pro-environment, pro-labor and pro-civil rights.
Sanchez is one of seven children whose parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the 1950s.
Republicans Struggle To Gain Traction In Race
Republicans running for Boxer's seat barely nudge the needle in surveys. Because the top two vote-getters in the June primary will face off in the general election, regardless of party affiliation, it looks like it will be the two Democrats in November.
Like Harris and Sanchez, former state GOP chairman and lawyer Duf Sundheim backs gay rights. He also supports abortion rights and immigration reform. And he speaks about income inequality.
“We are suffering an economic earthquake in this state and in this nation,” Sundheim said on the television show "The Game." “We have 8.9 million people in California alone living in poverty.”
Republican competitor Tom Del Beccaro, also a former state GOP chairman and lawyer, said on the show "The Right Side" that he’s focused his campaign on California’s water issues and prosperity.
”I come out for a flat tax,” Del Beccaro said. “A lot of people don’t know that about 150,000 Californians pay half of the income tax in the state.”
A late entry to the GOP field is former Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz. He said he filed to run last month to alert voters to a measure that would undo his 1998 voter-approved initiative to require schools to teach English.
The last time California elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate was in 1988, when voters re-elected Pete Wilson. Today, Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state by 15 percentage points, according to state voter registration figures.
Carl Luna, a San Diego Mesa College political science professor, said a GOP win this year in the Senate race is a pipe dream.
“If Kamala Harris were to be kidnapped by space aliens and Loretta Sanchez were to be indicted for something, possibly you would end up with a Republican able to win,” Luna said.
Harris Looks Hard To Beat
Polls give Harris a big lead over Sanchez. In a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll released on March 29, Harris was leading Sanchez 28 percent to 19 percent among registered voters, followed by Del Beccaro with 8 percent and Sundheim with 6 percent. Unz was not included in the poll because he had just entered the race.
Harris has raised $4 million for her campaign, about twice as much money as Sanchez.
Demographics, however, may give Sanchez, a Latina, an edge. The Public Policy Institute of California predicts that 18 percent of likely voters this year will be Latino; 60 percent white; 12 percent Asian; and 6 percent black.
So far, there doesn’t appear to be much contrast in the positions of the two Democratic U.S. Senate candidates.
Sanchez backs student debt relief, a minimum wage increase and overhauling immigration.
“I believe immigration reform is the next big moral imperative of our times,” Sanchez told state Democratic Party leaders in February. “It’s about real people.”
Harris supports President Barack Obama’s plan to offer free tuition at community colleges, a minimum wage boost and a path to legalization for the nation’s estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally.
The former district attorney is also pushing for prison reform.
“Let’s believe in a more perfect union without mass incarceration of African-American men and where we all recognize the truth: black lives do matter,” Harris told state party Democrats this year.
Harris has been described as having star power. She's also considered careful and controlled in her public actions. Sanchez is seen as more prone to speaking her mind. In December, she said 5 percent to 20 percent of Muslims support terrorism.
As attorney general, Harris may have more statewide name recognition than Sanchez, whose congressional district is confined to Orange County.
But Kousser, the UCSD professor, said more than name recognition may be needed to win in November.
“I think Californians all know Kamala Harris’ political resumé and her name, but we don’t know yet who she is, what she stands for, what motivates her,” he said.
Monday And Tuesday: A Closer Look At Front-Runner Harris’ Life And Her Politics
Copyright 2016 KPBS. To see more election coverage, visit www.kpbs.org.
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