Kamala Harris vanquished Loretta Sanchez in the historic race between two Democrats to succeed U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, as the state attorney general overwhelmed the veteran congresswoman in every facet of the low-profile campaign.
Harris was leading late Tuesday with 66 percent of the vote, a margin that would give her the largest win by a non-incumbent senator since Hiram Johnson in 1916.
Her victory elevates the daughter of Indian and Jamaican parents to become the state’s first woman of color to serve in the U.S. Senate and sets her on a path to become a national figure from her perch in the upper chamber. She will be the first Indian American and only the second black woman senator.
At her victory party, Harris took the stage as Republican Donald Trump was poised to capture the White House over Democrat Hillary Clinton, dampening the mood of the room for Democrats gathered in Los Angeles.
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“We know that we are making a commitment tonight with this celebration of this Senate race to do everything that we know needs to happen in our country to heal, to bring our country together, to fight for who we are and our ideals,” Harris said. “Do we retreat, or do we fight? I say we fight. And I intend to fight.”
Harris and Sanchez emerged from a 34-candidate primary field to challenge for California’s first open U.S. Senate seat in nearly a quarter-century. But the race was never close, despite Sanchez’s two decades of congressional experience representing a comparatively moderate Orange County district. Harris held a double-digit lead in nearly every public poll since she entered the race, and had a massive fundraising advantage despite heavy early spending.
Harris, with endorsements from President Barack Obama, and almost all of the state’s highest-ranking officials, including Sens. Boxer, Dianne Feinstein and Gov. Jerry Brown, touched on themes popular with Democratic voters, staking out liberal ground on everything from climate change to criminal justice reform. Harris committed to increasing the federal minimum wage, renewing the ban on assault weapons and mounting a national commitment to paid family leave, universal prekindergarten and affordable child care. Harris won her party’s coveted endorsement this spring with 78 percent of the vote.
Her early successes and big financial advantages allowed Harris to expand her electoral horizons, focusing on Latinos and assisting fellow Democrats in their campaigns.
Sanchez highlighted her federal experience working on military, homeland security and veterans issues, as well as her votes against the Iraq War, the federal bank bailout and the Patriot Act. She sought to inject regionalism into the race, arguing that for too long Northern California has held powerful state positions. Ultimately, Sanchez’s efforts to campaign as an outsider spurned by her own party’s establishment – despite serving 10 terms in Washington – failed to convince voters.
Boxer’s planned retirement promised to break loose the logjam within California politics that saw many of the state’s top elected posts held by Boxer, 75, Feinstein, 83, Brown, 78, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, 76.
Harris launched her campaign a week after Boxer confirmed she would not seek a fifth term. She immediately began rolling out the support of the long list of influential Democratic Party leaders and quickly raised money – $2.5 million in the year’s first quarter – factors that successfully prevented any big-name aspirants from running.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer all declined to challenge Harris. Later, Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank and Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles opted not to run.
Four months after Harris’ entry, Sanchez made her announcement at a Santa Ana train station, after flirting with gubernatorial runs in 2003 and 2010. Touching on a theme she would use in the campaign, Sanchez said she would not let “insiders ... pick our leaders.” She acknowledged the need to raise money.
Sanchez stumbled two days after her announcement.
At an event held during the California Democratic Party convention in Anaheim, she met with an Indian American group and mimicked a racial stereotype of American Indians. Sanchez apologized the next day, offering that candidates “who don’t hide behind the handlers” sometimes misstep.
But the impolitic gesture, which Harris called “shocking,” came at a time when party activists and donors were trying to determine her viability for the Senate. It was not the first – or the last – time Sanchez offended an ethnic group. Last December, Muslim and immigrant rights activists asked her to apologize for saying that between 5 and 20 percent of Muslims want to form a caliphate to target Western norms, calling the figures “wildly off-the-mark.”
After Obama endorsed Harris, Sanchez said in a Spanish-language TV interview that the president’s support was in part based on race: “She is African American. He is, too.” Harris called on her opponent to apologize, but contrition never came.
The enduring highlight from their only debate of the runoff was Sanchez dabbing, a dance move she said was prompted by her makeup artist’s 9-year-old daughter, Jamieson.
In the final days, Sanchez campaigned around her Southern California district, standing alongside some of her House colleagues, including Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, who earlier had endorsed her candidacy.
Harris, meantime, embarked on a statewide bus tour that had her stumping for several down-ticket Democrats, including Issa’s opponent, Doug Applegate, other Democratic congressional challengers and candidates hoping to win the party two-thirds supermajorities in the state Legislature. At a stop in San Francisco, joined by one of her proteges, Bay Area Rapid Transit board candidate Lateefah Simon, Harris led the crowd in a round of cheers.
“BART board! BART board! BART board! BART board,” chanted Harris, barely mentioning her own race for U.S. Senate.