By Nathaniel J. Hiatt, RCP
The race to replace retiring California Sen. Barbara Boxer pits two Democrats against each other with no Republican challenger, leaving some Democrats in an awkward position, and the GOP with no clear candidate to support.
Because of a 2010 change in the Golden State’s electoral system, which moves forward the top two primary winners regardless of party, front-runner Kamala Harris, the state’s attorney general, is running against her fellow Democrat, Rep. Loretta Sanchez.
Harris finished with 40 percent of the vote in the primary, compared to 18 percent for Sanchez and 8 percent for Duf Sundheim, the leading Republican vote-getter.
Harry Waxman, a former Democratic congressman from California, called the primary system a “failure.”
“There are a lot of people angry in the political party that’s not represented in the November ballot, because they really don’t have anybody to vote for,” he said. “You know, I think there will be a big drop-off [among] some Republicans in that November election.
That could be a problem for Sanchez, whose “strategy depends on getting independents, Republicans, and Latino Democrats,” according to Eric Schickler, who heads University of California, Berkeley’s political science department. According to a USC/Los Angeles Times poll, Harris leads Sanchez, 47 percent to 22 percent.
This puts Sanchez, who is often touted as the more centrist candidate, in the tough position of needing to earn Republican votes — but without losing her base.
“You have the elephant in the room — you’ve got a whole bunch of Republicans who don’t have a candidate to vote for,” Sanchez’s campaign strategist Bill Carrick said. “I think the conscious effort is going to be to try to appeal to everybody, but not in a way that you’re not compromising on your beliefs and values, and that’s really the challenge.”
But 64 percent of Republicans surveyed in the USC/L.A. Times poll indicated they just won’t vote.
Dave Gilliard, who is working with the Jobs, Opportunity & Freedom PAC, a conservative group, to encourage Republicans to back Sanchez, says he worries that GOP voters will have a hard time crossing party lines to support any Democrat.
“The feeling was that Sanchez … would be a better choice for Republican voters who don’t have their own candidate on the ballot,” Gilliard said. “I think part of the concern among the [PAC] is that the Republicans will stay on the sidelines if they don’t see an ‘R’ on the ballot.”
He also emphasized that even though both candidates are Democrats, one is going to win and it’s important therefore to elect the person who is more closely aligned with Republican interests. It is Sanchez’s “experience in the areas of national security and foreign policy” that drove the Justice, Opportunity & Freedom PAC to back the congresswoman, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the Committee on Homeland Security.
Carrick says Sanchez’s campaign is aware of the need to appeal to a broad swath of California voters and plans “to talk about some of the things that are now of interest to the Republicans,” including “economic issues” and matters of “national security, military, and homeland security.”
However, it looks to be an uphill battle. In addition to leading in polls, Harris has received endorsements from California Gov. Jerry Brown as well as the state’s Democratic Party. Harris outperformed Sanchez among almost all categories of voters who came to the polls for the June 7 primary. Sanchez won just five counties, and carried her Orange County district by only 2,000 votes. Harris finished with just over 2 million votes statewide, compared to 943,000 for Sanchez.
Harris spokesperson Nathan Click said the candidate “soundly won every region in the state, all age groups and even beat Congresswoman Sanchez among Republicans and Independents.”
“In the general election race, we are in an even stronger position and will look to expand and broaden that coalition,” he said.
The hope for the Sanchez camp is that a two-person general election field — narrowed from 34 candidates in the primary — means she’ll pick up the 40 percent of the vote that didn’t go to either of the top-two finishers in the primary. She’ll also need Latinos to turn out in full force, possibly driven to the polls by the desire to vote against the Republican nominee at the top of the ticket.