California’s first open U.S. Senate seat in nearly a quarter-century will remain in Democratic hands, as Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez outpaced 32 other candidates Tuesday to deny the state Republican Party a place in the fall runoff.
Harris, the state attorney general, clinched a first-place finish in the contest to succeed U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, more than doubling the percentage of Sanchez, a 10-term congresswoman from Orange County.
Looking ahead to Nov. 8, Californians can expect an historic same-party match-up that will elevate a woman of color to Congress’ upper chamber. Harris is the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, while Sanchez’s parents are immigrants from Mexico.
As vote-counting continued, Harris led with 39.8 percent of the vote. Sanchez had 17.3 percent, followed by Republican Duf Sundheim at 9 percent.
In a triumphant speech from San Francisco, where she began her political career as district attorney, Harris said she was able to draw support from an assortment of Californians: whites, African Americans, Asians, Latinos, LGBT people – “folks of all stripes.”
“We had a historic election in that it was about all of us coming together, whether you are a Republican, a Democrat, an independent,” she said. “We spoke in this election, whether we were supporting Bernie or we were supporting Hillary. We all came together.”
Several factors, including competition in the Democratic presidential race and a lack of unification around a Republican candidate, bolstered Sanchez.
“It’s been an exciting campaign, and we’re getting ready for Round 2,” Sanchez told supporters. On Twitter, she said, “We’re moving on to the November General Election for the U.S. Senate!”
In an interview, Sundheim said he was pleased with the way he campaigned, offering an alternative to the state’s dominant Democrats.
“I think we showed that there’s an alternative to the machine,” Sundheim said.
Harris was the first to declare her intent to run for the seat, with her announcement coming a week after Boxer confirmed she would not seek a fifth term. Harris’ campaign immediately set out to make her the favorite by rolling out a list of endorsements and quickly raising money.
Several Democrats, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, declined to run against her.
Harris took her time before subjecting herself to extensive questioning, studying a variety of issues that continue to force her out of her comfort zone of law enforcement. She struggled early with keeping down her campaign spending, ultimately reshuffling her team before securing the coveted California Democratic party endorsement and raising more than $11 million, far more than all the others combined.
Campaigning across Southern California last weekend, Harris plied progressive constituencies and adopted a more vigorous critique of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump for his racially charged comments about U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, whose family came from Mexico.
Harris said she wants to tackle major policy issues, from immigration to climate change to the criminal justice system. She said the party’s endorsement is an indication of a diverse group of Californians agreeing with the issues she’s raising.
“It’s also about a lot of hard-working men and women who are engaged and involved with the party talking to their neighbors and friends,” she said.
Before settling into the race last spring, Sanchez made trips to Northern California to test out her critiques of Harris, mostly dealing with her lack of federal experience. After launching her campaign, however, Sanchez was hesitant to negatively engage Harris, in part out of concern that it could stifle her own efforts and benefit one of the lesser-known Republicans. She put a premium on fundraising, bringing in nearly $3.6 million.
Cutting across the Southland last weekend, Sanchez took her campaign to neighborhoods she’s familiar with as well as Latino strongholds. Campaigning in Spanish, Sanchez talked about the need to strengthen ties with Latin America.
“We talked about building a better relationship than we’ve had before,” she said.
Sanchez, the more outspoken of the two Democrats, refused to retreat from her congressional voting record, arguing in recent days that having a long history in office could be a positive for someone who has made the right decisions. She pointed to her votes against the Iraq War, financial bailout and the Patriot Act. Her two decades in Congress, with service on the Armed Services and Homeland Security committees, helped her draw strong comparisons between her rivals.
“It’s about taking the tough votes,” Sanchez said.
Republicans in the race, including former state party chairmen Sundheim and Tom Del Becarro, mostly relied on unpaid outreach, an insufficient approach in a diverse state with 18 million registered voters.
Among the party’s electoral casualties was Rocky Chávez, an assemblyman from Oceanside who ended his bid after months of trouble getting donations. Ron Unz, who previously ran unsuccessfully for governor, was a late addition to the contest.
In the final weeks of the campaign, a new super PAC funded by Charles Munger Jr., the Palo Alto physicist whose father is the business partner of Warren Buffett, reported spending several hundred thousand to boost Sundheim and sink Del Beccaro. The mailings focused on Del Beccaro’s record as state GOP chairman, blaming him for electoral, voter registration and funding woes the party suffered.