In California Senate race, Latino candidates size up potential impact of Hispanic vote



The U.S. Senate race in California is shaping up to be one of the hottest political contests of 2016, with a number of Latino candidates looking to succeed the retiring Senator Barbara Boxer.One of them appears to be U.S. Representative Loretta Sanchez.

Sources say the 10-term congresswoman from north Orange County will announce as early as this week that she is entering the race.

During a meeting with Latino leaders in San Francisco last Friday, the Democrat gave a campaign-style speech and took aim at the declared frontrunner, state Attorney General Kamala Harris.

“I believe a Latino candidate will energize the community in ways that other candidates cannot,” Sanchez told Fox News Latino. “Latinos are at the forefront of these discussions and they want a candidate that can relate to their families.”

In a state where 40 percent of the population is Hispanic, Sanchez and three other Latino leaders are counting on their ethnic roots to help energize a voting block that could prove decisive.

Two Republicans, San Diego assemblyman Rocky Chávez and Fresno businessman John Estrada have already declared their candidacy and begun setting up their campaigns, while Sanchez’s fellow U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra from downtown Los Angeles is still “seriously” weighing a possible bid.

But they will have a tall task to overcome the star power of State Attorney General Kamala Harris, who proclaimed her candidacy within days of Boxer’s announcement on Jan. 8 that she would not seek reelection.

Harris, whose mother is Indian and father is Jamaican-American, is ahead in the polls, has already secured numerous endorsements and reportedly raised $2.5 million for her campaign in just three months.

Under California's nonpartisan primary law, all candidates appear on the same ballot regardless of party. Voters may choose any candidate, and the top two finishers advance to the general election.

A poll of early support for 18 potential candidates in the race conducted by the Field Research Corporation earlier this year, shows voters open to a range of possibilities.  Sanchez was 7 points behind Harris with 39 percent; Becerra had 28 percent, and Chávez 20.

 The Democratic advantage

California Democrats have a steep advantage over Republicans in voter registration— 43 to 28 percent, and the Golden State has historically favored Democratic candidates in statewide races.

A survey released in February by the California Legislative Latino Caucus showed Sanchez with 46 percent support among democratic voters, and Becerra with 25 percent.

Sanchez, who was elected to the House in 1997 and describes herself as a fighter, insists that she has still not decided to run but has apparently hired high-profile fundraisers. She visited San Diego last month, and this weekend attended an event hosted by several Latino organizations in San Francisco.

A moderate Democrat in very conservative Orange County, Sanchez needed to get out the Latino vote 18 years ago to assure herself a seat in the House.

“As a Latina from a large family, I can relate to the struggles that face Latino families in California,” she told FNL, “but I can also relate to the opportunities that can present themselves when California is at its best.”

She added, “If I run, I will be the only candidate thus far [who] will bring federal experience to this race. That is a good thing, because, let me tell you, Washington has not changed me, I have changed Washington.”

Of course, if Becerra runs, he too would bring a long history of D.C. experience to the race. He has served in the House even longer than Sanchez, since 1993; he has climbed the ranks and is now chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and one of the leading congressional advocates of the Dream Act and comprehensive immigration reform.

Becerra told FNL that he believes Latinos will play a pivotal role in the 2016 election.

“California is the most dynamic state in America.  Its dynamism is due in large measure to the ingenuity, tremendous work ethic and diversity of its people. Latinos play a major role in that life and trajectory,” he said.

Becerra fueled speculation about a Senate run after he visited San Diego early this month to talk with business and labor groups.

The Republican challenge

The 2016 race will surely be a test for Republicans, who have not held a Senate seat in California since 1992.

Chávez, a retired Marine Corps colonel, is in his second term representing northern San Diego County in the state assembly. Previously, he served 7 years on the Oceanside City Council.

He has a moderate stance on immigration and is against repealing the Affordable Care Act.

“I’m from Los Angeles, my father’s family started as migrants,” Chávez told FNL. “I worked my way through college, and all my children have college degrees so we understand the challenges and the values of reaching the American dream.”

He added that he is not discouraged by the possibility of running against better known Latino Democrats.

“I know the community. I represent the community, and there’s hope for me,” he said.

The other candidates’ greater visibility does not discourage Estrada either. He is a small-business owner from the town of Sanger, in Fresno County, with years of involvement in the Mexican-American community in Central California.

He says his motivation to run is to become a role model for younger generations of Latinos, and the fact that there are no Mexican-Americans in the U.S. Senate.

“Young Latinos and Latinas growing up and being able to see someone on a powerful position in the Senate will give them the idea that they too can get somewhere,” he told FNL.

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Marcia Facundo is a freelance journalist who currently reports from Los Angeles, California. She has worked for El Nuevo Herald and as Hispanic Affairs Correspondent for the BBC World Service.

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