State Attorney General Kamala Harris carried at least 50 of 58 California counties in the U.S. Senate primary Tuesday, collecting twice the percentage of votes that went to fellow Democrat Loretta Sanchez.
With the support of the Democratic establishment and powerful labor groups, Harris’ fundraising skills make her the favorite heading into a Nov. 8 rematch. Polls taken before the primary showed her also leading Sanchez, a 10-term congresswoman from Orange County, in a general election.
“Anything is possible in politics,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a strategist for retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer. “It’s certainly an uphill battle for Sanchez at this point.”
Sanchez was on a plane heading back to Washington on Wednesday, while Harris joined Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf at the Home of Chicken and Waffles, where Harris said her win resulted from “unity” among people of multiple demographic groups.
As vote-counting continued, Harris led a field of 34 candidates with 40 percent of the primary vote, while Sanchez had 19 percent.
Ace Smith, a Harris strategist, called her strong showing in such a crowded field “extraordinary and overwhelming.”
“We are going into the second half with a three-touchdown lead here,” Smith said.
But the historic nature of the race – it’s the first statewide partisan runoff between candidates of the same party in California – could result in surprises.
Bill Carrick, Sanchez’s campaign consultant, said the fall electorate will be significantly larger and more diverse, with more voters from her native Southern California, a dynamic that he said favors his candidate.
A large contingent of Latinos and young voters will likely head to the polls to support presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and oppose Republican Donald Trump, Carrick said.
“You are going into a whole different election,” he said. “These are dynamics that are opportunities for us.”
Carrick said Harris’ gambit to vastly outspend Sanchez on TV ads in the primary failed to garner its intended result, siphoning away support so Harris could face a Republican in the runoff. California’s Democratic registration edge makes it exceedingly difficult for a Republican to win a statewide race.
“The whole thing was to try not to have an actual election,” Carrick said. “They wanted it to be a coronation kind of event.”
Sanchez will have to do a better job of raising campaign contributions to keep pace with Harris on TV, Kapolczynski said. Sanchez relied in part on money transferred from her congressional account as well as the sale of her campaign headquarters.
Kapolczynski said Sanchez could see a boost from donors who waited on the sidelines until she made it though the runoff. Harris, who raised $11 million, may face complacency from Democratic donors choosing between giving to one of two Democrats for Senate or to stop Trump from winning the presidency, she said.
“They may look at the situation and say, ‘Wow, Hillary Clinton really needs my help. Kamala Harris will be fine.’ ”
Wylie Aitken, who has served as Sanchez’s campaign chairman since she upset conservative Bob Dornan in 1996 to win a congressional seat, believes she’ll make up ground with donors swiftly.
With the fog of the all-consuming spring presidential contest lifting, Sanchez could expect more attention, an overall benefit for an underfunded candidate, said Katie Merrill, a California Democratic strategist not involved in the race.
People will naturally be drawn to a contest between Harris, the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, and Sanchez, whose parents are from Mexico, Merrill said. Sanchez can drive the storyline of the race, Merrill said, “but she is going to have to do a series of disruptive things to draw attention” and court Latinos and Republicans.
Sanchez could organize farmworkers in the Central Valley and have the events covered in Spanish-language media before they are picked up across the state, Merrill said. Sanchez also could use her background as a financial adviser and knowledge of foreign affairs and national security to reach out to Republicans. She would need to base her overtures to those communities on a mostly negative campaign against Harris, Merrill said.
Outside groups from across the aisle are responding. An organization led by people interested in national security and foreign policy contacted Republican consultant Dave Gilliard in recent days with a plan to fund a pro-Sanchez outside group called Jobs, Opportunity & Freedom PAC, he said.
“We haven’t done much on the budgeting side,” Gilliard said. “They are talking about big numbers. But we’ll see how it develops.”
Jason Roe, another Republican consultant, said GOP donors looking to weigh in on the race in other policy areas like jobs and the economy would be motivated by “the lesser of two evils.” Sanchez, Roe said, “hasn’t been a typical, knee-jerk liberal. She has not been as wacky like the rest of them.”
Roe reiterated the Republican-led effort would not be coming from the party structure, whose officials did not decry being shut out of the runoff. State GOP Chairman Jim Brulte said it’s better for his party to have Harris and Sanchez spend money against one another.
“That beats having a Republican sacrificial lamb running against the Democrat, who can take half of what she raised and use it to help Harry Reid beat Republicans in other states,” Brulte, a former GOP legislative leader, wrote in an email to The Sacramento Bee.
Election experts said they anticipate at least a third of Republican voters to sit out the U.S. Senate race in the fall rather than vote Democratic.
On Wednesday, Republicans like Tina Wilson awoke to the idea they would not have a candidate of their own to support in the fall. Wilson, of Citrus Heights, owns a rice farm in Colusa and re-registered from independent to Republican to vote for Ted Cruz for president. In the Senate primary she backed Republican Duf Sundheim, the third-place finisher.
Turning to November, Wilson said was saddened about her choices.
“Everybody has always told me all my life, ‘It’s the lesser of two evils,’ but this is really wearing on me,” she said. “It’s very sad. It’s kind of heartbreaking, because I feel that I have no representation.”