Written by The Business Journal Staff
(AP) — Republican candidates were shut out in the race for California’s open U.S. Senate seat, but GOP voters could play a key role in November in determining which of two Democratic women goes to Washington.
Attorney General Kamala Harris won a commanding victory in Tuesday’s primary to claim one of two runoff spots, winning all but a handful of the state’s 58 counties.
Fellow Democrat Loretta Sanchez, a member of the House representing an area of Orange County, notched a second-place finish that gives her another chance against Harris this fall.
There were 12 little-known Republicans on the ballot. In the general election, the party’s 4.9 million voters will be trying to figure out what to do with only two Democrats on the ballot to pick from.
Donald Trump’s candidacy could determine whether Republicans get energized or stay home.
The vote Tuesday resulted in a historic first, when Californians sent two Democrats, both minority women, to the November runoff.
The matchup marks the first time since voters started electing senators a century ago that Republicans will be absent from California’s general election ballot, reaffirming the GOP’s diminished stature in the nation’s most populous state.
With the presidency at stake, voter turnout in the November contest could double compared to the primary. Voters will be “younger, more Latino, more Asian, more African-American, more whites, a lot more people from every category,” Sanchez strategist Bill Carrick said.
“The biggest dynamic is you have a wholly, entirely different electorate,” he said.
Harris, a favorite of the party’s liberal wing, enters the runoff as the front-runner for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer.
Sanchez, a political moderate who has spent two decades on Capitol Hill, is tasked with finding a way to sharply increase her vote tally against a rival who grabbed about 40 percent of the vote Tuesday in a field of 34 candidates — a statement of political muscle.
Pulling a lever for a Democrat would probably be a difficult choice for many Republicans, but others could be motivated to block the ascent of Harris, who is seen as a rising Democratic star in the mold of President Barack Obama.
With a win, Harris, the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, would become the first Indian woman to hold a Senate seat and the second black woman elected to the Senate.
Sanchez, if elected, could become one of the first Latinas to hold a U.S. Senate seat.
Republican strategist Mike Madrid said he attended a recent meeting in which Sanchez met privately with business leaders to discuss water policy and tax issues. He suggested that Sanchez could stitch together a first-time coalition of Hispanics, Republicans and moderate Democrats.
“Republicans are going to be probably the determinative voting bloc, if they consolidate behind one candidate,” Madrid said, noting the race could hinge on “a Latina candidate actively courting Republican votes.”
Harris advisers discounted the potential for Sanchez to assemble such a coalition, arguing that the attorney general performed strongly with Hispanics as well as other groups across the political spectrum.
Hispanics represent about half the population of Los Angeles County, where Harris drubbed Sanchez by a landslide margin. The two were running about even in Orange County, where about one in three people are Hispanic.
Harris strategist Sean Clegg called the notion of a Hispanic-Republican alliance uniting behind Sanchez “misguided.”
Republican voter registration in the state has withered to 27 percent, while Democrats are at 45 percent, giving the party a 3.1-million edge in voters over the GOP.
Independents now account for nearly one in four voters in the state.
Carrick also dismissed the notion that Sanchez would attempt to form a first-time coalition with Republican-business interests to take on Harris.
“It’s obvious Republicans don’t have a Republican choice. That’s a reality,” he said. But “we are going to try to appeal to everybody.”
Under California’s unusual election rules, candidates appear on a single ballot and voters can choose anyone, regardless of party affiliation. But only two advance to the general election — the top vote-getters.
Republican National Committeeman Shawn Steel said Sanchez had the opportunity to make inroads with Republicans, given Harris’ prominence in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
“Whoever can speak to the values of conservatives and moderates will win,” Steel predicted.