In the Jungle of California

Loretta Sanchez, Kamala HarrisCalifornia has the largest population of any state in the Union, and as such plays an extremely influential role in the national politics. Long a bastion of liberalism, it is unsurprising that many influential Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA-12) and venerable Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer hail from the Golden State. What’s more, California’s large and diverse electorate can make it seem more like a nation than a state.

Despite California’s size and importance—or perhaps because of it—California’s statewide elections have been relatively placid for years, with the state’s central Democratic Party keeping a tight grip over who it chooses to nominate for Governor and the two sitting Senators being consistently re-elected. However, in the past few months that has changed dramatically.

In January, Senator Barbara Boxer announced that she would not be running for a fifth term and in effect set off what looks to be the second largest and most expensive election of 2016 after the presidential election. The shockwaves her announcement has sent throughout California politics have created an opportunity for California Democrats that hasn’t come since Boxer’s election in 1992.

What makes this election particularly interesting is that California is one of three states with a top-two primary system, or as it’s mockingly called, a “jungle primary”, where all candidates are put on the same ballot in June and the two candidates that receive the most votes proceed onto the general election. What that means is that two candidates from the same party can run against each other in the general election if they each receive enough of the vote.

Although panned in the past as a way of splitting the Democratic vote between multiple candidates in a state where they should have the advantage while failing to increase voter turnout, this election cycle looks set to send two Democrats to the general election. Attorney General of California Kamala Harris and Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (CA-47) have pulled ahead of the myriad of Republican candidates early on, setting the stage for a showdown between two Democrats for Boxer’s Senate seat.

Kamala Harris in particular has created an early lead by raising over six million dollars and by securing important endorsements from rising Democratic stars such as Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand. Combined with her firmly liberal record of supporting same-sex marriage during California’s struggle to recognize same-sex couples, her previous fights for environmental rights, her open opposition to the big-money politics of Wall Street, and her statewide recognition, Harris has become the candidate to beat.

However, Loretta Sanchez is answering that challenge with considerable aplomb. Featured as a more moderate Democrat, Sanchez is attempting to build up enough support to come in second in the open primary so that she can attract independents and Republicans in the general election. While she has a solid record as a liberal in regards to social issues, her position as the most senior female member of the House Armed Service Committee and her years of business experience before becoming a member of Congress may make her more palatable to Republicans in the general election.

Judging from Harris’ early lead and the fractured group of Republicans running, it seems clear that Harris will be in the general election. The question is whether Sanchez can pick up the votes necessary to join her, and it increasingly looks like the answer to that question is yes.

Although Harris has a considerable campaign war chest, it has been noted that she is spending money almost as quickly as she is raising it. Some estimate that by the time of the general election, her pattern of overspending will put Sanchez on par with her, particularly as Sanchez steps up her campaign.

Even more importantly, California has a large and growing Hispanic population. Although Harris polls well among Bay Area Californians and voters on the coast, Sanchez, as the daughter of Mexican immigrants, has a natural advantage among the Hispanic population. Most years, Hispanics don’t vote with nearly the same regularity as other groups, but this year is different. This year, Donald Trump is running for office.

It’s been noted that Democrats around the country have been using the anger that Donald Trump and other Republican candidates, such as Ben Carson, have provoked among the Latino population to help turn out their vote. In a year where the power of Latinos looks increasingly ascendant, Sanchez would be a fool not to rally support among the large Hispanic population in her state.

If Republicans fail to coalesce around a single candidate, which they haven’t done so far, Sanchez may well come in second in the primary only to win it all in the general. Although it’s been pointed out that when a party isn’t fielding a candidate in the general election most of its members simply don’t vote, Harris’ brazen liberalism may push Republicans to vote for someone they would feel more comfortable with – someone like Loretta Sanchez.

In the increasing likelihood that two Democrats make it to the general election, it will be an election that Democrats all across the country should watch for. It will be a true test of what a post-Great Recession era Democrat looks like. Whether it’s the Warrenite or the Blue Dog who wins, it seems certain that this election will have implications beyond just California.

Benjamin Zuegel