This November, California Attorney General Kamala Harris (D) and Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) will square off to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). For the first time since California voters began electing U.S. senators in 1914, there won’t be a Republican on the ballot.
That’s due to the “jungle primary” system California voters signed off on when they approved Proposition 14 back in 2010. The measure transformed the state’s June primaries into open contests where all voters vote for all candidates, with the top two finishers regardless of party advancing to November.
Beyond the absence of a Republican on November’s ballot, the election will be significant for another reason. Harris, who won the state Democratic Party endorsement, would be the first African American woman to serve in the U.S. Senate since Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) was defeated by Peter Fitzgerald (R-IL) and left office in 1999. Sanchez, meanwhile, would be the first Latina ever in the U.S. Senate.
Critics of “jungle primaries” argue the system can skew results by granting an advantage to candidates who have to deal with less competition from their own party. On primary election night in 2014, for instance, a race for the state’s controller office between five candidates — three Democrats and two Republicans — appeared set to boil down to the two GOP contenders, despite Democrats receiving more votes overall (at the time, 43 percent of California voters were Democrats, compared to 28 percent Republican). The subsequent counting of absentee and provisional ballots elevated a Democrat into the final round, but opponents of the system pointed out that the primary night tally illustrated an inherent flaw in the process.
But despite the fact that Tuesday’s U.S. Senate primary featured 12 Republicans and seven Democrats among 34 candidates overall, vote splitting doesn’t appear to have skewed the results. Harris received 40 percent of the vote, Sanchez 18 percent, and the top-finishing Republican received less than half Sanchez’s total.
The last California Republican to win election to the U.S. Senate was Pete Wilson back in 1982, and the latest voter registration data indicates that might not change anytime soon. Of the 646,220 people who registered to vote in the state between April 8 and May 23 of this year, 76 percent registered as Democrats. Overall, 45 percent of California voters are registered as Democrats, 27 percent as Republicans, and 23 percent are registered as having “no party preference.”
As Bloomberg reports, Sanchez has established a reputation during her two decades in the House as a moderate who has voted with Republicans on issues like gun control and regulating for-profit colleges. In fact, thanks in part to the “jungle primary” system, her candidacy heading into Tuesday was supported by a number of prominent Republicans. She voted against invading Iraq and the Patriot Act, and as a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and the Homeland Security Committee, is a respected voice on national security issues.
Harris, meanwhile, has won the endorsement of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). On her website, she strikes a populist tone by vowing to “be a fighter for middle class families who are feeling the pinch of stagnant wages and diminishing opportunity.” As Attorney General she’s sought to reduce California’s prison population, reduce police violence, and prosecute polluters. Earlier this year she began investigating ExxonMobil for misleading the public about the risks of climate change, and she recently sued the Southern California Gas Company for failing to report a massive methane leak.