Dan Walters

California’s top 2016 race will be Democratic duel for U.S. Senate

Tom Del Beccaro, left, and Duf Sundheim, right, applaud as Democratic state Attorney General Kamala Harris is introduced during a U.S. Senate debate at The University of the Pacific in Stockton on April 25.
Tom Del Beccaro, left, and Duf Sundheim, right, applaud as Democratic state Attorney General Kamala Harris is introduced during a U.S. Senate debate at The University of the Pacific in Stockton on April 25. The Associated Press

California has had its brief moment of semi-relevance in this year’s wild and woolly presidential contest and Hillary Clinton can now safely count on its 55 electoral votes.

Democrats can also assume that the U.S. Senate seat that Barbara Boxer has occupied for the last 24 years will remain in the party’s hands.

However, there is some doubt about which Democrat, making the contest between Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez the year’s premier duel whose outcome will have ancillary effects.

It is, first of all, the first statewide test of California’s top-two primary system.

What Sanchez hopes will occur – Republican and independent voters playing decisive roles by electing a Democrat her party doesn’t support – has already happened in a fair number of legislative and congressional districts. It’s created a bloc of moderate, business-friendly Democratic legislators.

With two Democrats dueling, therefore, the state’s fast-dwindling ranks of Republican voters could have far more impact on electing a U.S. senator than they would were Harris facing one of the GOP candidates who lost in the June 7 primary.

Even the most salable of those Republicans, Duf Sundheim, would stand no chance, and tellingly, state Republican Chairman Jim Brulte has expressed relief that the GOP won’t have to waste money on a fall campaign it can’t win.

No matter how the Harris-Sanchez race plays out, it could set the template for statewide intraparty clashes in the future. We might well see such a Democrat-vs.-Democrat race for the governorship in 2018 and perhaps one for another Senate seat should Sen. Dianne Feinstein retire.

Harris is certainly the favorite, as a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll of primary voters underscores. Overall, it found her, at 47 percent, with more than a 2-1 lead over Sanchez with two-thirds of Republicans saying they wouldn’t vote for either in November.

However, as Sanchez campaign manager Bill Carrick says, “This is a new campaign, with a new and expanded universe of voters.” Voter turnout is likely to be 50 percent higher in November and it’s way too early to predict how Republicans and independents might lean then.

Should Harris win, it would create an intriguing political situation, giving Gov. Jerry Brown an opportunity to fill arguably the state’s second most important office, although his choice would face legislative approval.

Would Brown, a former attorney general himself, name a caretaker and allow nature to take its course when the office opens up in 2018? There’s no shortage of hopefuls.

Or would Brown choose someone who would run for a full term in 2018 as the incumbent and thus become a future candidate for governor or U.S. senator?

Speculation is already running high in political circles, and some believe Brown might appoint his wife, Anne Gust Brown, an accomplished attorney who has been his deputy-without-portfolio in both the Department of Justice and the Governor’s Office.

By the same token, a Sanchez victory, as unlikely as it seems at the moment, would be a huge win for California’s burgeoning Latino population, the state’s largest single ethnic group.

Finally, it’s a fascinating clash of personalities and political styles – Harris the risk-averse, politically correct liberal and Sanchez the unpredictable and sometimes undisciplined free spirit.

It is, in a way, not unlike Clinton vs. Trump.

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