California's US Senate race: Unique, historic and utterly boring

California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez.

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The last time California had an open U.S. Senate seat, Bill Clinton was running for president. Nearly 25 years later, the winner of this race is guaranteed to make history. But with the only general election debate set for Wednesday night, hardly anyone in California seems to be paying attention.

Some Modesto community college students are about to show off their school to the frontrunner in California’s U.S. Senate race – but they're not exactly sure who she is.

Students like Samantha Whiteman who wasn’t quite sure which party Harris was affiliated with or how to pronounce the candidate’s first name.

“Right now, my concentration’s mostly on school and trying to juggle school and work and clinicals,” says Whiteman. So she’s not paying a lot of attention to this Senate race.

Kamala Harris and Ginger Parrish of Modesto, a first semester nursing student at Modesto Junior College the nursing students are learning how to insert IVs.
Kamala Harris and Ginger Parrish of Modesto, a first semester nursing student at Modesto Junior College the nursing students are learning how to insert IVs.
Ben Adler/Capital Public Radio

But neither are most other Californians. A recent poll asked voters which race they were most enthused about, and just two percent said this one. Perhaps that’s because the two candidates have so much in common. Mindy Romero studies voter engagement at UC Davis:

“People use party ID. And then there’s gender ID. And then there’s race or ethnicity ID. We have two Democrats, two women, and two women of color,” explains Romero.

Kamala Harris is California’s Attorney General, and she’s backed by the Democratic Party establishment. She’s half black, half Indian; she’d be the first Indian-American senator, and the second African-American woman. And she’s earned a reputation as ambitious yet cautious.

“There’s a big difference between being a supporter of something and being a champion of it,” says Harris.

Her opponent’s style couldn’t be more different. Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez is known for being brash. She’s in her 20th year on Capitol Hill, and she’d be the Senate’s first Latina.

“You can trust me to stand up to the establishment,” she said on the night she finished second in the June primary. “California voters have sent the political establishment a message!”

Another reason so few voters are engaged could be that an entire major political party is left out. Under California’s primary system, the top two finishers – regardless of party – advance to the November election. And California’s first same-party statewide runoff prompts the question: What’s a Republican to do?

“Well, in my case, I’m probably gonna leave it blank,” says Tony Alosi, a republican who volunteered for Ted Cruz in the California Primary.

Polls suggest about a third of GOP voters are like Alosi.

“You can’t really forecast what’s going to happen just because one Democrat is slightly less Democratic than the other one,” says Alosi.

Another third of the Republican electorate is splitting its vote between the two Democrats. And the last third is undecided – including Erik Laykin, who founded LA Trump and attended this year’s Republican convention.

“One still needs to cast a vote for the candidate that most closely represents your views, even if it’s by a far stretch,” says Laykin.

Polls show Harris in the lead. With the presidential race drowning out everything else, Wednesday night’s debate could be Sanchez's only chance to catch up. For her to have any shot at winning, she'll need Laykin’s vote – and every other Republican and independent she can get.


“There is a path for a moderate Democrat to win this kind of a race,” says Republican political consultant Cassandra Pye. She says that path would require lots of endorsements and slate mailers – from the Sanchez campaign or outside groups. But none of that has materialized yet, and early voting starts next week.

“And when you think about it, I’m sort of the quintessential sort of Sanchez voter in this race, right? I’m not liberal, I am a Republican, I’m a woman, and I’m a perpetual voter – and I’ve seen nothing. I’ve seen no evidence of a campaign,” says Pye.

That’s the great irony of this race: It’s unique, historic...and utterly boring. Which suits Kamala Harris just fine.

Series: California Counts

California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #CACounts.