Capitol Alert

U.S. Senate candidates chat, dance their way toward Tuesday’s election

Democrat Loretta Sanchez, the veteran congresswoman from Orange County, backpedaled across the dance floor, swaying to the music at a Bolivian carnival late Friday and gently beseeching voters at their tables.

In a speech in Spanish, the U.S. Senate candidate highlighted her votes against the Iraq War and the Wall Street bailout. She also touched on some of the differences she would offer as a Latina when it comes to forging new relationships with Latin America.

At an earlier stop in Fullerton, she dropped into cocktail conversations with no hesitation – sparking banter about the metric system, Budweiser’s recent name change and the lyrics of a local high school’s fight song. For nearly a quarter-century California’s two senators have been from up north, Sanchez told patrons, one after one – it’s time for that to change.

“It’s going to come down to a San Franciscan or an Orange County person,” she said, soliciting high-fives. “And you want to be with me.”

The leading candidates for a California U.S. Senate seat are spending the weekend in a late scramble for support across vote-rich Southern California, with good reason. A TV news appearance in Los Angeles reaches many million more homes than the next-largest market, the Bay Area, making it the traditional battleground for statewide races.

Campaigning in San Diego, fellow Democrat Kamala Harris, a Bay Area native who now spends more of her time living in Los Angeles, was shuffling between restaurants in the Gaslamp Quarter, making small talk and pressing for votes ahead of Tuesday’s primary election.

The daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, she bonded with an Indian attorney over their love of dosas, the crispy variation on the crepe made from fermented batter.

“You’re too skinny, and you need to eat more,” Harris said, recalling her own family’s advice.

Later, at a union hall east of downtown, a man from the Caribbean wanted assurances that her commitment to overhauling U.S. immigration laws focused on more than Central and South America, regions that consume much of the political debate.

“Ya man,” Harris promised, shifting into a Jamaican accent. The room of Democratic and labor supporters burst into applause.

Typically the time when Democrats choose their nominee, and increasingly in deep blue California the eventual winner, Tuesday may settle little about the sleepy contest to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer. Every public poll to date has shown Harris, the state attorney general, in first place, followed by Sanchez. Under the state’s primary system, the top-two candidates, regardless of their party, meet again in a fall rematch.

The latest survey from Field Research Corp. found Harris up 16 percentage points among likely voters, with her biggest leads over Sanchez coming among Democrats, liberals and voters in the Bay Area. She also leads across Southern California and with older voters.

Sanchez is running stronger with Latinos and millennials, the latter group energized by the frantic campaigning of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. She also is focusing her appeals on Spanish, Vietnamese and Korean-speaking media. An outside group has spent modestly on automated telephone calls urging support for Sanchez.

The lack of consolidation among several lesser-known Republicans in the race, and no competition on the GOP presidential side, should help Sanchez advance to the fall runoff, said Katie Merrill, a Democratic strategist in the Bay Area.

Yet the relatively new election system forced Sanchez’s team to make new calculations that previously applied mostly to nonpartisan races.

Merrill said Sanchez faced the tactical dilemma of having to hold the Republicans, including former state GOP chairmen Duf Sundheim and Tom Del Beccaro, at bay while resisting forceful criticism of Harris out of fear that it could benefit another candidate.

“Sanchez had to worry about it backfiring,” Merrill said.

However, she said Sanchez may come to regret not taking a more aggressive approach. Even if she qualifies for the Nov. 8 election, Sanchez will want to keep down the margin between her and Harris to demonstrate viability in the head-to-head matchup.

“She could have definitely been doing more to raise her visibility to let voters know what she stands for, and raised more money,” Merrill said.

The uncertainty over her standing comes from the race’s high number of undecided voters, according to the polls. Complicating the picture is a late injection of outside spending by wealthy GOP benefactor Charles Munger Jr. on behalf of Sundheim and against Del Beccaro.

Del Beccaro, with the backing of many conservatives, is relying mostly on talk radio and social media, and he points to a flurry of recent endorsements, including from the Tea Party Express, to set him apart from the 34 candidates on the ballot.

Ron Unz, a third Republican with some recognition from challenging former Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994 and sponsoring the state’s ban on bilingual education in 1998, said he expected to spend just $50,000.

Sundheim is making a push with radio ads across Los Angeles, as well as the Central Valley, where he has scored newspaper endorsements, and in the Bay Area and San Diego where he’s raising public safety issues. On Saturday, he campaigned in Southern California, highlighting support from prominent Republicans like House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Between events Saturday, Sundheim said he was “cautiously optimistic” that his message is breaking though. He was stopped twice in airports.

“It’s such a big state, and there are so many components to it,” he said. “But the voicemails I am getting, the emails I am getting. ... Whether it will be enough to get us across the line. ... The margins are so small ... it’s really going to come down to who turns out.”

“I am having a ball,” he added.

Eric McGhee, a researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California, has studied the top-two system since its passage in 2010, and he cautioned not to underestimate the GOP’s chances. He pointed to the large numbers of likely voters in Field and PPIC polls who remain undecided, and Sanchez’s dependence on historically less reliable voters.

“Our first point of view should be skepticism,” McGhee said. “We shouldn’t be trying to convince ourselves that it will be (a) same-party (runoff), but that it won’t be.”

Fear that Sanchez could fall out of contention has fed a deepening rift among Democrats. Harris was overwhelmingly endorsed by the state party and has the support of many of its stalwarts, here and nationally – from Gov. Jerry Brown to Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Harris holds a 49 percent to 21 percent edge over Sanchez among Democrats in the Field Poll.

Formal Democratic Party backing is advantageous. California voters who receive a Democratic ballot will get a digital slate card with Harris at the top of the ticket on all of them.

Sanchez’s congressional colleagues, many of whom support her Senate bid, are beginning to voice concerns. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said the state party’s assistance of Harris was insulting to Latinos across the country. He noted the historic nature of the race, adding a Democratic Latina has never been elected to the U.S. Senate.

In an interview, Vela said the party should have stayed neutral.

“The state party institution in California knows that they rely on the Latino vote in every general election cycle to help Democrats beat Republicans,” Vela said. “And here you have a situation where you have a candidate like Loretta, who served this state well. ... I respect the right of Latino voters to choose whoever they want to in that race, but the institution shouldn’t be taking sides.”

Michael Soller, a spokesman for the state party, said officials have not determined an outreach strategy should Harris and Sanchez advance.

“We are trying to do this in a way that doesn’t tear Democrats down,” he said. “Whatever we do will be with that in mind.”

Harris’ campaign has pointed to endorsements from a long list of Latino Democrats, from labor leader Dolores Huerta to former Assembly Speaker John Pérez, who rode the bus with Harris this weekend.

After wrapping up in San Diego on Friday, Harris headed for Los Angeles, where she spent the morning at Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles in Inglewood, then made stops in Long Beach and Downey.

“There’s still a lot more that we can do to remind people that this election is happening,” she said in an interview aboard the bus. “I think one of the best ways to do it is direct contact with people. Oh that I could do this every day.”

On Sunday, she planned to hit a half-dozen churches, including First AME on Harvard Boulevard.

The late burst caught some potential voters off guard. Several were surprised to learn about Boxer’s retirement. In exchanges with Harris and Sanchez, the voters confused the federal office they seek with the upper chamber of the state Legislature, also called the Senate. Harris’ attorney general title, which also is shared at the federal level, appeared to perplex one attorney.

Sanchez took the unscripted encounters in stride. She darted out to a car to press for a driver’s vote. Outside a bar, she showed off her knowledge of beer brands (noting Budweiser’s name change to “America,”) and, upon learning of a patron’s home city, she launched into a rendition of their neighboring school’s song. Sanchez finished off the number with a pirouette.

She traveled Saturday to a street fair in South Gate and car show in Whittier, an area represented by her sister, Linda T. Sánchez. In Fullerton, a woman from her sister’s district stopped to chat.

“You are already voting for Linda Sánchez,” Loretta reasoned. “Now, you have to look among the 34 candidates for Loretta Sanchez.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago