Published December 03, 2016
California Attorney General Kamala Harris would love to deliver an election-day surprise by ousting her strongest rival and fellow Democrat, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, from the race for the state's open U.S. Senate seat.
But the most likely outcome from the June 7 primary will be a November rematch between the two Democrats and another reminder of the waning influence of Republicans in the nation's most populous state.
"If there is no Republican on the ballot for Senate in November, that makes it much more difficult to get serious candidates to run for governor and lieutenant governor ... in 2018," said Steve Frank, a Republican strategist and longtime conservative activist. "It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Independent polling this week confirmed again that Republicans in the contest remain unknown to most voters, while Harris and Sanchez are positioned for a 1-2 finish that would propel the rivals to a one-party runoff in November. In California, the top two vote-getters advance, regardless of party.
For the average voter "there is so little information about any of these Republicans," lamented veteran GOP consultant Kevin Spillane, adding that the ballot has a random pick aspect.
Voters will pick from 34 candidates who want to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer, but in many ways the low-key campaign to replace her has been a two-person race between the state's top prosecutor and the 10-term congresswoman.
With time running short, Harris has been trying to undercut the Orange County-based Sanchez, matching the congresswoman with Spanish-language TV ads, touting her endorsement from civil rights icon Dolores Huerta and running phone banks aimed at Latino voters.
A Public Policy Institute of California poll released Wednesday found Harris with 27 percent support, Sanchez at 19 percent and Republicans Tom Del Beccaro, Ron Unz and Duf Sundheim lagging in single digits.
The largest single group of voters — nearly 1 in 3 — remains undecided, injecting the race with volatility.
In general, Harris and Sanchez are competing for the same pool of voters in the primary election — Democrats and left-leaning independents who will comprise the majority of those who turn out to vote or send in ballots by mail.
Harris' best outcome would be running up a big enough edge to push Sanchez's support into the low teens or single digits, potentially opening the way for one of the little-known Republicans to sneak into the two-person November runoff.
With the state's strong Democratic tilt, that would all but assure Harris' election in November.
She's been trying to do just that. Among her plans: the endorsed Democratic Party candidate plans to spend significant time campaigning in the Los Angeles area in coming days, a key battleground with large Hispanic population in play.
Sanchez, 56, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who has been stressing her national security credentials, has made direct appeals for support from fellow Hispanics and has a more than 2-1 edge over Harris among those voters, polls show.
But there's a question mark.
Even if the 51-year-old Harris can dent Sanchez's support, the attorney general's gambit relies on one of the Republican candidates gathering enough votes to challenge for the No. 2 spot.
There's no sign that is happening: with no breakaway candidate, the GOP vote is likely to be splintered.
Sundheim, for example, a lawyer and former state Republican Party chairman, was the pick of just 3 percent of likely voters in the PPIC poll. Del Beccaro, another lawyer and former GOP leader and the leading Republican in the survey, notched just 8 percent.
Democrats are strongly favored to hold the seat in a state where the party controls every statewide office and both chambers of the Legislature. Democrats also hold a nearly 2.8 million voter-registration edge over the GOP in California.
You'd have to go back nearly three decades to find a Republican who was elected to the U.S. Senate from California — Pete Wilson, in 1988.
The election represents the latest test for California's unusual election rules, put in place several years ago, under which all candidates appear on a single primary ballot. Only the top two vote-getters advance to November, regardless of party affiliation.
In this case, the so-called top-two primary appears likely to leave voters with only Democrats as choices, which would make Republicans and independents potential swing votes. That's little solace to some Republicans who have watched their party drift toward irrelevance in California.