The duel between Democrats Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez is California’s first for a vacant U.S. Senate seat in 24 years, and also the first statewide race between two candidates of the same party under California’s top-two primary system.
The dynamics of the latter factor appear to be overshadowing the former.
Ordinarily, an open Senate seat in the nation’s most populous state would draw big-time attention from politicians, the media and voters. But so far, it’s been the antithesis of exciting, or even interesting.
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Harris, the state’s attorney general and the favorite of the California Democratic Party leadership, clearly hopes to float to victory on a cloud of politically correct bromides, saying and doing as little as possible.
The onus is on Sanchez, an Orange County congresswoman who has been something of a maverick in her career, to make it a fight. But she hasn’t been doing much either, seemingly believing that a less-liberal Latina from Southern California will automatically overcome Harris’ advantages of establishment support and name identification.
That said, while Harris is leading Sanchez in three recent statewide polls, she hasn’t closed the deal with voters, particularly independents and Republicans who don’t have a Senate candidate themselves.
The USC/Los Angeles Times, Field Research and Public Policy Institute of California polls may agree that Harris is in front, but otherwise are all over the map.
Harris has a wide lead over Sanchez in the venerable Field Poll, 42 percent to 20 percent, but much narrower ones in the USC/LA Times poll (32 percent to 16 percent) and the PPIC survey (32 percent to 25 percent).
Sanchez’s campaign, of course, hailed the PPIC poll, but the very sharp contrast between it and the Field Poll created a stir among political analysts.
The biggest discrepancy was in responses from Latino voters. PPIC had Sanchez with a whopping 58 percent to 16 percent lead over Harris among Latinos while they were virtually tied in the Field poll, 35 percent for Harris and 34 percent for Sanchez.
Could the differential be explained by Field’s identifying the candidates by title while PPIC just used their names?
Mark Baldassare, PPIC’s president and poll director, points out that it used just names in a July poll that gave Harris a wider lead, 38 percent to 20 percent.
“I am at a loss to explain what happened in that race that would have made it closer or further apart between now and July,” he said.
In fact, very little has been happening other than sniping between the two camps over debates, with just one scheduled on Oct. 5.
The activity void may explain why the biggest revelation in the recent polling is that six-plus weeks out from Election Day, at least 40 percent of potential voters either are undecided or are ignoring the race altogether.
“This is the first open U.S. Senate seat in a quarter of a century in California and no one seems to care,” said Dan Schnur, director of the USC/LA Times poll, after its results were released this month.
Schnur points out that in his poll 82 percent of registered Republicans and 52 percent of registered independents agreed that it’s a “bad thing” that they must choose between two Democrats rather than having a traditional Democrat vs. Republican contest.
They’d better get used to it, because we may have several such races for statewide office in 2018.