U.S. Senate underdog Loretta Sanchez smiled, scowled and gestured her way through her only debate with Democratic rival Kamala Harris on Wednesday night, consistently exceeding her time limit and punctuating her closing remarks by striking a made-for-social-media pose.
Sanchez’s abrupt dab, a trendy dance move, jolted Harris, who broke from her guarded demeanor to comment on her rival’s behavior: “There’s a clear difference between the candidates in this race.”
On style, the debate laid bare the gulf between Sanchez’s unbound qualities and Harris’ direct, prosecutorial approach.
Yet the more significant revelations from the hourlong confrontation at California State University, Los Angeles, were the policy differences between the two Democrats competing for the first time in a general election for a statewide seat.
Harris, the state attorney general, and Sanchez, a two-decade congresswoman from Orange County, diverged sharply on crime and punishment, marijuana legalization, for-profit colleges and water policy. Their positions, while offering voters a view of how they might approach the job, also revealed their differing election strategies.
On Wednesday, Sanchez tore into a fall initiative pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown to make certain prison inmates eligible for early parole, calling it a “get out of jail free” card. And she accused Harris of drafting a rosy assessment for Proposition 57 that downplayed its menacing impacts.
“She talks a good story on gun control,” Sanchez said of Harris. “But did you know that if you give guns to gangs, you can get out of jail free if this passes? She has failed to lead on supposedly the area that’s her expertise.”
The measure technically allows certain inmates to be considered for parole, not sprung from prison en masse. But Sanchez’s “lock ’em up” stance on crime is no accident – it speaks to her need to appeal to Republicans. Polling shows Harris holding a large lead among Democrats.
Sanchez also is relying on a surge of turnout by Latinos in an election marked by the rise of Republican Donald Trump. She made it a point to say the nation has done enough to secure the border. She also needs to attract a share of the non-Latino Democratic vote.
It’s a tricky calculus, said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant.
“I think she has two legs of the stool. She needs that third,” Madrid said. “Loretta has to win a very significant share of the Republican vote.”
The two candidates largely agreed on the need to overhaul the immigration system, protect abortion rights and fight terrorism and the Islamic State.
But in running to the right, Sanchez reached back to a report that Harris’ office released this summer showing that statewide violent crime increased 10 percent last year, the first rise since 2012. Homicides increased nearly 10 percent, and aggravated assaults were up 8 percent.
“As a senator,” Sanchez said, pointing to the crime stats, “she would fail to lead.”
Sanchez’s quest to attract enough Republicans and Latinos would be a big lift even for a well-funded candidate, which Sanchez is not. She had just over $900,000 in cash through June, far less than Harris’ $2.7 million. Harris is expected to begin running her TV ads soon.
Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said it’s not impossible, but there’s no precedent for the coalition Sanchez wants to build, calling the strategy a “zero-sum game.”
“The more time and effort she spends trying to get Republicans, the more likely she is to lose Latino votes, and vice versa,” Schnur said.
Harris, a career prosecutor who wrote a book on criminal justice reform, charged Sanchez with engaging in Willie Horton-style “fear-mongering” on crime. For her part, Harris made direct appeals to Latinos in an effort to draw votes away from Sanchez. The front-runner noted that the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión, labor icon Dolores Huerta and the United Farm Workers all have endorsed her.
Harris also aggressively used the event to burnish progressive credentials that on Thursday earned her the endorsement of Sen. Barbara Boxer, whom Harris is campaigning to succeed.
On marijuana, Harris said the legalization measure on the fall ballot, Proposition 64, is likely to pass. Sanchez avoided any discussion on legal recreational marijuana and instead talked about her support for medical uses of the drug, approved in 1996. Harris, a favorite of environmentalists, stressed conservation and recycling in a question about water, while Sanchez talked about building reservoirs.
She attacked Sanchez by saying she protected for-profit college chains as they sought to deflect tougher federal regulations. The colleges have become a punching bag for liberals as the cost of education and borrowing soars.
“They were engaged in the most unbelievable predatory practices targeting some of our most desperate and in-need people who just simply wanted to get an education,” Harris said.
Boxer said Harris’ stances on the issues helped her rise above Sanchez for the endorsement.
“California deserves a continuation of clear progressive leadership in the U.S. Senate,” she said. “For almost 50 years, the seat that I hold has been a leadership seat on human rights, women’s rights, civil rights, voting rights, immigrants’ rights, fair trade, a clean environment and a voice for all families – no matter their circumstances. Kamala Harris shares those values with me. Her broad array of endorsements underscores this.”
In her endorsement, issued jointly with Boxer, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein lauded Harris’ approach, saying she has been a “consistent voice of unity and optimism at a time when too many political leaders have tried to divide our communities along racial and religious lines.”
She may have been alluding to remarks by Sanchez this year from an interview with Larry King that up to 20 percent of Muslims want to form a caliphate to target Western norms, remarks the California Immigrant Policy Center said at the time were “wildly off-the-mark.”
Sanchez said her statements about Muslims were being twisted by Harris.
Of the endorsements, her spokesman, Luis Vizcaino, said Sanchez has a long-standing relationship with the two senators.
“Loretta Sanchez will continue to campaign across the state as the candidate with the experience that matters, and as senator she will be a voice for the people of California, not the political establishment,” Vizcaino said.